Apple to the Core
Fans insist that Macs can't be beat for design and productivity. Are they right for your company?
In the world of mainstream business computing, they're derided as fanatics -- slightly daft and hopelessly in love. Is there any other explanation why a sensible, profit-oriented business owner would stick with Apple's Macintosh to run the whole operation when nearly the entire business world runs on a different, and often incompatible, Wintel platform?
Leslie Eiser thinks so. "The ease of networking is unbelievable," says Eiser, who is international sales manager and sometime computer specialist for E.D. Foods Ltd. of Pointe Claire, Quebec. Recently, she set up a battery of iMacs in less than 20 minutes per computer. "I can't install a PC out of the box in under two days," she says. The company, which makes gourmet soups and sauces, started migrating to Macs about a decade ago after Eiser put one in front of a secretary who was designing promotional materials. "Her productivity skyrocketed," she says. "The other secretaries said, 'how come she got that computer and we didn't?'" Now with 32 Macs -- including 20 iMacs -- strung into its network, E.D. Foods even controls manufacturing with a Mac server, doing real-time processing to track inventory, monitor and control cooking, analyze sales statistics, and the like. If it sounds like a good argument for an all-Mac business, don't forget the glitch: For payroll, the company has to use a PC with Windows because it couldn't find Mac software that would handle the intricacies of Quebec's tax code.
That's the kind of obstacle that argues against the Mac as a platform for business. But diehard Mac fans insist that "business Mac" is not an oxymoron, despite the company's modest 9% share of the small-business desktop market. And they claim much has changed in the past two years to alter the equation. For starters, Apple Computer Inc. is no longer seen as a basket case, financially or technologically, quelling doubts among business clients about buying a machine whose maker won't be around to support it. At least one influential technology research group contends Macs are no more expensive to own than PCs. And the Cupertino (Calif.)-based company has issued a host of new products, including a cutting-edge desktop model, the G4. The question is whether the new appeal will outweigh the unique problems that Mac devotees must endure.
At C.W. Keller & Associates Inc., for example, plans for the company's pricey, custom-made wooden fixtures and furniture are drafted on Macs. But the two computer-controlled beam saws that speed production at the 40-worker shop in Plaistow, N.H., take their orders from PCs that run Windows software. So for about the last four years, workers painstakingly transferred instructions into the saws' controllers manually. This year the company spent an estimated $20,000 writing its own software that translates Power Mac instructions into Windows code. Still, Senior Product Manager Shea Dimock says it was well worth it. Her staff finds designing on a Macintosh so much easier that she figures the Macs earn back at least that much in higher productivity and lower training costs in the months after she brings in a new hire.
Some tech experts call this Mac devotion "religious," and it's a trait found in nonbusiness users, too. But Roger Kay, research manager for technology analysts International Data Corp. based in Framingham, Mass., says the devotion on the part of small businesses -- which often can't afford a professional systems manager -- is entirely rational. "You don't have to know too much about computers. Macs are pretty self-explanatory and they're user-friendly," he says. As for the more tangible considerations, here's how it looks now:
Cost: Macs stack up pretty well, says analyst Mark Margevicius with The Gartner Group, based in Stamford, Conn. True, the initial outlay is often much higher than it is for a PC, but Gartner looks at the total cost of ownership -- including installation costs, technical support, administrative time, training, and work hours lost to downtime, among other costs. Do the math, he says, and the Mac comes out even with Windows 95 and Win98.
Software: Developers aren't shunning Apple as they did when its future was in doubt, but there are still some lingering effects. "You're not going to have as big a selection," says Gartner analyst Kevin Knox. For instance, you can't get Lotus SmartSuite for Apple, but you could make do with the rival Microsoft Office program. Bottom line: You can get what you need, if not always what you want.
Compatibility: There's always that glitch. Just ask Dr. Joseph Hildner, who owns a medical practice with a payroll of about 25 in Belleview, Fla. His Mac couldn't receive and send Federal Aviation Administration forms for pilots' flight physicals that he frequently performs. When the agency started requiring that reports be filed online, he broke down and bought a PC. That was all right with his business manager, Susan Kennedy, who says she had never before seen a Mac in her 15 years in medical administration. But now her PC must share files with Hildner's Mac laptop. "They don't always like to talk to each other," she says. "He can hide files in all kinds of places where I can't find them."
This problem seems likely to fade as Net-based computing becomes more important. Laurie J. McCabe, vice-president of Summit Strategies Inc., high-tech marketing consultants based in Boston, points out that if software resides and runs on the Net, instead of being installed on computers, any computer with a Web browser will be able to get all the programs it needs. Margevicius adds that under circumstances in which Macs and PCs can co-exist, it's less radical to go with Apple. "It's not as big a decision as it once was," he says. "The religious fervor is less important."
Support: The pool of people with expertise on Apple systems just isn't as deep, which makes hiring and swapping tips harder. And for all the passion of its adherents, Apple does precious little to court small-scale operators. The company peddles its wares only indirectly, through third-party resellers, and it doesn't operate a special support unit for small companies. Unlike many large technology companies such as IBM, Gateway, Dell Computer, and Microsoft, it has no strategic group devoted to small business affairs. Visitors to apple.com won't even find a small-business page. In fact, Apple didn't want to put anyone on the phone for this story.
Still, Apple's not entirely alone in its oversight. PC makers in general are just waking up to the potential of sales to small businesses, says Knox at Gartner. "Apple's not starting from way behind the rest of the industry," he says. Indeed, small-business units at many big companies are less than three years old.
In the meantime, Mac fanatics can enjoy their "Think Different" underdog status. Eiser, in fact, capitalizes on it. "The best thing about being a Mac house," she says, "is that I don't have to deal with those dumb software salesmen. I can eliminate 90% of them by asking, 'Does it work on a Mac?'"
By JEFF ZYGMONT
This article was originally published in the September 13, 1999 print edition of Business Week's frontier. To subscribe, please see our subscription policy.