The Mac Moment: Apple Advice for IT Support Professionals

The Apple iMac, Apple Mac Pro, Apple MacBook Pro and other Macintosh desktops and notebooks are increasingly replacing Windows-based PCs in the enterprise. IT professionals need to know how to provide great Mac support in their organization. In this Knowledge Center article, contributor Ivan Drucker gives the Windows-oriented IT professional some hands-on techniques and advice about how to support the Apple iMac, Apple Mac Pro, Apple MacBook Pro and other Apple technology.


This is the Mac Moment. Five years ago, Macs were still a fringe product for their fans. Today, Mac market share is 8 percent and shows no signs of slowing down. Effective advertising, attractive retail stores, the iPod and the bad rap on Windows Vista have millions looking at Macs when they decide that their PCs need replacing, rather than automatically buying another Hewlett-Packard or Dell machine.

What does this mean for you, the IT professional? It means that Macs are coming to your users' desktops, if they aren't there already. And those users will be coming to you for support. Macs in the enterprise have often been treated as second-class citizens, sequestered in the graphics department, a foreign platform to be avoided whenever possible. That isn't going to cut it anymore. Macs are valuable business tools too, despite their "creative" reputation. It's time to make friends.

This article is intended to give the Windows-oriented IT pro some hands-on techniques and advice about Apple technology. We'll look at what Macs do well and not so well. We'll explain how to maintain Macs, how they interact with Windows and other platforms. We'll take a glimpse at Apple's forays into cloud computing and lots more-all to help you get the most out of the Macs in your business. We're not here to sell you on Apple; our purpose is to give you the tools you need to provide great Mac support in your organization.

What is a Mac?

Let's start off by talking about what a Mac is. A modern Mac has hardware that is 99 percent identical to any PC running Windows. In fact, a Mac can run Windows, but we'll discuss that in depth in a future article. Current Macs use Intel Core 2 Duo or Xeon CPUs, standard RAM, hard drives and peripherals, and have most of the same ports and slots you'll find on a PC.

What really makes a Mac a Mac is its operating system, Mac OS X (currently Version 10.5, aka "Leopard"). Mac OS X is actually the most widely used variant of Unix in the world. Unix, of course, is a multiuser operating system that dates back to the early 1970s, so it's tried and tested-a known quantity. Mac OS X is carefully designed to hide its Unix engine from everyday users, but reveals tremendous power when you pop the hood by opening a command shell.

What can Mac OS X do?

Conceptually and functionally, Mac OS X does pretty much the same things that Windows does. It manages files, launches applications, prints, browses networks and so on. The interface is largely similar to Windows, so learning it is not difficult. It's well known that the user interface of Windows was inspired by the Mac and, many years later, Microsoft has repaid the favor by introducing ideas that Apple has adopted. When working with a Mac, keep in mind that it does most of the same things as Windows but it does them a bit differently.

Why would someone want a Mac?

There are many reasons someone in your organization might want to use a Mac. Security is one of the most common. Though new Mac security holes are always discovered (as they are with every platform), malware is still practically nonexistent. There have been no outbreaks to date. Exploits have been theoretical, not in the wild. This doesn't mean that you can afford to be complacent about security with a Mac. But it does mean that there's nothing remotely approaching the teeming hive of dangerous code that exists in the Windows universe. After all, if you wanted to spread your malicious software as far and wide as possible, would you rather attack 90 percent of the world's computers or 8 percent?

Another common reason people get Macs is for their "ease of use." Whether or not Macs are actually easier to use is a matter of opinion, of course. However, you might notice that setting up a wireless network is quick and dependable. Printers on your network just become available for use automatically; you're rarely asked hard-to-answer questions (such as whether or not to replace a given .DLL).

There are also numerous small details intended to make using the computer more pleasing to the user. Why is that important? For the same reason people buy comfortable cars. If I'm using something for 8 hours a day, shouldn't I like it? If your users find the Mac experience a pleasant one, the relationship between the user and the machine is changed. Their computer becomes something to enjoy-not something to deal with. And when your users are happy, your job is easier.

Who usually uses Macs?

Because Macs are often associated with "creative types," graphics, photography departments and other creative departments often do their work on Macs. Though most of the major software titles (such as Adobe Creative Suite) are available for both platforms, users of those applications often prefer Macs. This is, in part, historical: Apple has long been the brand of choice for many creative people. But there are some packages that are only available for Macs (particularly, Apple's own line of professional video and audio production tools).

Finally, there's the "cool factor." You may laugh, but Macs are "in," so people want them. The CEO likes her iPod, and she sees that the guy in the next office just got a Mac and it looks good. She's seen the ads. She's curious about whether they're really easier to use, and she wants the "cool factor." So she decides to give the new platform a try. This is happening all the time and is a phenomenon that didn't exist even two years ago. Macs are in.

What can you do with a Mac?

But what about you, the technical expert? Is there more to the Mac than "ease of use" and being "cool"? Absolutely. Mac OS X is a very robust and capable operating system. The Unix software humming under the surface lets you write powerful scripts in almost any language you choose. You have access to the vast world of open-source software the Unix community provides. Automator and AppleScript allow you to make sophisticated workflows through the automation of diverse applications, both Apple and third party.

If you develop applications, Apple's XCode development environment is free. You can even run some .NET applications with the correct setup. Finally, if Mac OS X can't get it done for you, virtualization software lets you run all the Windows or Linux software that you want, side by side with Mac applications.

So that's the why; but we're here for the how. Our future articles will address specific needs to help IT professionals support the Macs in their organizations as well as the Windows computers.

It's the Mac Moment and you can be a part of it. We'll show you how.

(Click here to read Ivan's next article: "The Mac Moment: Mac IT Support Toolkit")

/images/stories/heads/knowledge_center/drucker_ivan70x70.jpg Ivan Drucker founded IvanExpert Consulting in 2002. He is an Apple Certified Support Professional and a member of the Apple Consultants Network, and worked as an engineer for Apple at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. He has also served as development manager for the Web site of Sotheby's auction house. He has been using Apple computers since 1978, when he got his first Apple II. He can be reached at [email protected].