Macs not right for everyone

by Dale Vile

The story goes that once you have experienced the Mac, there is no going back. Time and again, we hear this line from recent converts to Apple’s competitive offering to the traditional PC/Windows combination.

When you talk to developers and media guys, they can give you good solid reasons for the switch, and there can be no question that the Mac operating system, OS X, and some of tools available for this essentially unix based environment, offer benefits if you are into code cutting and heavily creative activities. Many consumers too seem to like the platform, as the Mac presents arguably a cleaner and simpler environment for the home/recreational user.

What’s interesting, however, is when you ask everyday day business users who have converted to the Mac about why they did it. The answers that come back are then usually quite woolly, and often degenerate into “It’s just better at everything than Windows” or “It just makes me feel more creative”. When pressed, such users find it difficult or impossible to articulate precise benefits.

If you push the conversation, you get into the discussion of security, anti-virus, etc, but these are IT issues in most business environments that are pretty well understood and reasonably easily managed on Windows nowadays, and likely to hit the Mac community at some point anyway. The conversation then gets really confused when talk about “office functionality” – email, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. With the world and his dog essentially standardised on Microsoft Office for business, how does the average Mac user in a mainstream commercial setting handle that? Well, they typically run a copy MS Office in a Windows virtual machine using Parallels or VMware Fusion. Most say they flip to this to do a lot of their more ‘boring’ work such as messaging and collaboration via the Exchange server, and participation in the document production/review/approval cycle with colleagues, clients, suppliers and so on, then do everything else in OS X. Of course the big question then becomes what does “everything else” actually translate to – accessing corporate applications and the Web through a browser probably – i.e. things that the desktop OS has little bearing on.

I am generalising here, of course. Some manage with Apple’s iWork Office suite and live with the reduced functionality and file formatting/exchange challenges. Others buy a copy of Microsoft Office that runs natively on the Mac, which probably offers the worst of both worlds. For some, they simply don’t have a need to interoperate with the Windows world in very big way so they use whatever native applications they like.

Despite the confused views, behaviour and apparent contradictions, however, Mac converts are typically very forceful, at least emotionally, about defending their move, regardless of the type of user they happen to be. So there’s clearly something interesting going on here.

Acknowledging that I might be thinking about things too logically and relying too much on values and assumptions arising from years of Windows usage, I concluded that that there was at least a possibility that I was missing something intangible that Mac users just ‘get’. So, a few months ago, I bought a Mac, started to experiment with it, and ultimately instigated a pilot of Mac OS X in my company (a small industry analyst and research firm) to see how well it would support our core business activities.

Fast forwarding to the result, of the five Macs we have invested in (one MacBook and four MacBook Pros), two are currently sitting here waiting to be repurposed as Vista machines, and the others have been set up to allow Windows to be used for core business purposes (either via dual boot or virtualisation), but still allowing access to OS X for experimenting and maintaining a working knowledge of the operating system for research purposes.

So why was the pilot not successful?……..

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Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.