Spurred by renewed popularity of Apple products, many enterprises are taking a fresh look at the Apple Macintosh platform. The result: an unmistakable uptick in enterprise Mac deployments.
For many companies that embrace the Mac, the obstacle of strangeness looms largest. Introducing a new end-user computing system brings with it questions of application compatibility, management tools and administrator skills. At RAND, however, allowing a new generation of Macintosh users to be themselves in a corporate environment is nothing new. Indeed, it harks back to the early days of the Macintosh, when 80 percent of end-user systems at RAND were Macs.
Known as a think tank specializing in top-secret studies for the military, RAND, with headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., also does plenty of publicly available research in the realms of health, education, labor, aging, employment and the arts.
Starting from a majority-Mac environment in the mid-1980s, PCs gradually displaced Macs at RAND until a few years ago, when the Mac share of the research firm’s user base was down to 20 percent. Thanks to renewed interest in the Mac, that share has crept up to 22 percent, or about 400 of RAND’s nearly 2,000 employees, according to Dan O’Donnell, information systems security officer at RAND.
The Mac rebound at RAND is aided by the organization’s cross-platform end-user strategy that affords equal stature not only to Macintosh and Windows, but to Solaris and Linux. That have-it-your-way spirit is important at a company in which skilled experts make up the heart of the work force and bring in the bulk of the income, said O’Donnell.
Reversal of Fortune
Reversal of Fortune
Only a few years ago, many enterprises sought to rid themselves of Macs and other “nonstandard” end-user systems to reap the benefits of simplified purchasing and support.
Maintaining multiple end-user environments historically has meant testing applications for compatibility on each platform, purchasing multiple sets of management tools and hiring administrative staff with skills on each platform. The benefits of a homogeneous environment often appeared so self-evident that the trend to a single environment-typically Windows-appeared to be irreversible, leaving the Macintosh to occupy a tiny niche in corporate graphics departments.
Now, however, there’s a trend in the other direction. And the willingness to embrace multiplatform end-user environments-the Mac specifically-is fed by several factors: lower Macintosh prices, the wave of enthusiasm surrounding Apple’s consumer products and disenchantment with Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system.
“People are coming in and asking their IT manager if they may use their home systems as their corporate desktops. I think that’s how it started,” said Laura DiDio, principal at Information Technology Intelligence, a research firm in Concord, Mass.
The popularity of the iPod and the iPhone also contributed. “Apple caught the wave, and they floated in on that tide,” said O’Donnell. “The success of the iPod and the iPhone has made people look to that [Macintosh] user interface as a viable alternative. That’s the primary reason. People see that their kids’ iPod and iPhone and computer work well. And all their friends hate Vista.”
Enthusiasm for the Macintosh is nothing new, but it has always been tempered by higher cost. Customers have historically paid a premium for the privilege of being a Macintosh user, a toll that most corporations-especially those with large desktop and laptop populations-have sought to avoid.
Now, thanks in large part to Apple’s decision several years ago to build its systems on top of Intel microprocessors, that price differential is declining to the point where it is in many cases no longer an obstacle to adoption.
Even so, the decision to allow the Macintosh into the enterprise on an equal footing with incumbent Windows PCs is still a rarity, according to research firm IDC.
Apple’s U.S. market share in 2008 was 5.8 percent, up from 4.24 percent in 2005. But in the business market alone, minus educational and government accounts where Apple is historically strong, Apple market share was still a paltry 1.44 percent in 2008, up from 1.18 percent in 2005.
Still, IDC analyst Doug Bell believes small and midsize businesses in particular are favorably inclined toward the Mac. “The growth is there, and we don’t see it slowing down any time soon,” said Bell.
Research conducted by ITIC and Sunbelt Software revealed that 77 percent of organizations have at least one Mac. The research also uncovered a remarkable willingness in recent months to allow the Mac a place at the corporate table. In the spring of 2008, an ITIC/Sunbelt survey found that 34 percent of respondents said they’re willing to accept the Macintosh in the enterprise. In December, 68 percent answered the same question affirmatively.
“It is a sustained trend,” said Information Technology Intelligence’s DiDio. “I’ve been tracking it for a good three years. I don’t want to overstate or understate. There will not be a tidal wave of Macs replacing Windows, but this is the strongest foray that Apple has had in the enterprise since 1988.”
Strong Mac Tradition
Strong Mac Tradition
With its strong Macintosh tradition, RAND hired O’Donnell in 2002 because of his Mac expertise. Previously, O’Donnell worked at NBC as a Mac specialist, but found himself out of a job when the broadcasting giant decreed an end to Mac usage even in its production department.
At RAND, employees choosing the Macintosh platform may select from several types of systems depending on their role in the corporation: Researchers get a MacBook Pro; administrative assistants get an iMac; employees in the company’s creative department get either a MacBook Pro or a Mac Pro tower; and a corporate executive or a high-level researcher can choose a MacBook Air.
In addition to the software that Apple includes with those systems, users get Microsoft Office for Macintosh and Microsoft Remote Desktop. For a browser, most Mac-equipped employees use Apple’s Safari, although Mozilla Firefox is also supported.
To integrate Macs in its corporate environment, RAND is using Centrify Direct Control to authenticate Macintosh and Linux systems with Windows Active Directory. Although Apple offers its own tool for authenticating Macs on Active Directory, O’Donnell said Centrify’s software works better and he is planning to use Centrify software to integrate Solaris, as well.
One technology that is aiding multiplatform deployments as well as the Mac resurgence in the enterprise is desktop virtualization. RAND is using VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop for Mac so that users can run Linux and Windows in virtual machines on Mac OS X systems. Doing so lets them move back and forth among Windows, Linux and Macintosh applications as they please.
In addition to fostering end-user satisfaction, RAND is reaping other benefits from its strategy, not the least of which is enhanced security. “We get attacked and hit by viruses just like anybody else, but it’s always for Windows,” said O’Donnell.
And although the cost of a Mac remains somewhat higher than the cost of a Windows PC, O’Donnell reports that Macintosh hardware quality is high and the software has fewer problems. “We have less support needs for the Mac,” he said.
Apple Succeeds Without Really Trying
Apple Succeeds Without Really Trying
Despite his enthusiasm for the Macintosh platform, O’Donnell, like many enterprise Macintosh customers, is frustrated by Apple’s treatment of its corporate clients. He notes that Al Shipp, Apple’s senior vice president for enterprise sales, retired from the company in November 2008 and was not replaced by Apple. “That shows Apple doesn’t really care about the enterprise,” said O’Donnell.
And while expressing a desire to gain corporate accounts, Apple does not accommodate the expressed wishes of enterprise customers by providing a road map of future product directions, he noted. O’Donnell is also disappointed that Apple has decided to pull out of the popular Macworld show and believes the move may backfire by undermining the Macintosh’s growth in popularity.
In addition, O’Donnell cites a security deficiency in Mac OS X 10.5 that he has been asking Apple to fix for more than a year, to no avail. The software subsystem in 10.5 that does auditing does not work properly, he claims, and Apple won’t tell him if it will be fixed in Version 10.6. He said this feature is very important for users in the payment card industry or for Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. “I have complained, but I get no response,” said O’Donnell.
Even so, there are some signs that O’Donnell finds encouraging. The Enterprise Desktop Alliance was formed in June 2008 by Mac ecosystem vendors including Centrify and Parallels, with the purpose of fostering easy interoperability and support for cross-platform desktop environments. “I think I will benefit from it, and they will benefit from joining forces,” he said.
One EDA member, GroupLogic, makes middleware that integrates Macs with Microsoft Windows Server. O’Donnell is looking forward to the time when that integration is leveraged with Centrify’s directory service. “Tying them together makes it better for users, administrators and security guys,” he said.
Despite Apple’s ambiguous attitude, O’Donnell plans a “steady as she goes” strategy that will continue to give end users a choice over the systems they use in a mixed environment. In response to user interest, he is testing application interoperability between the Macintosh and the iPhone. If customers continue to choose the Mac in ever-growing numbers, so be it. For RAND, it’s a better way-and a tradition.
Stan Gibson, a frequent eWEEK contributor, is a freelance writer based in Framingham, Mass.