MacBook Air: The ultra Ultrabook and business Windows, too

Summary:Ted Schadler lends some firsthand thoughts on using the MacBook Air in the enterprise.

I've been testing the MacBook Air for five months now. I use it for work and for home. At work, I run our corporate image Windows XP with the attendant applications and security software in a Parallels virtual machine. At home, I run the Mac side. After a few hiccups with the security software going haywire in our corporate image (thanks to the Parallels support team and to our own IT client and network security team for help), it's been a great experience.

I don't need to wax poetic about just how good the MacBook Air itself is. Plenty of testers have already explained just want makes the MacBook Air the ultra ultabook. See Engadget, CNET, Fortune. (And of course ultrabooks were all the rage at CES this year, see HP's showcased by Serena in Gossip Girl and Dell's XPS 13.)

But I do need to describe my experience with this travel-friendly, totally modern, and practical combination of hardware and software. I'll then also point out some things that are still challenging in using the the MacBook Air in a Windows-centric business world. First, the experience in four bullets:

  1. The machine itself is a wonder. I drop it on the floor and it keeps ticking. The battery lasts a flight across country. It fires up and finds a network in seconds. It's lickedly splitly fast and deliciously light. It's thin and light enough to slide unnoticed into my bag. (I have to look to check that I didn't forget it.) It boots in seconds, finds Wi-Fi in moments, and discovers new video connections without problems. And it draws looks of envy from colleagues and respect from customers. It's worth the price.
  2. Parallels virtual machine is easy to use (and easy enough to set up though I'm not much of a do-it-yourselfer). The software is stable, and it behaves just like a Windows machine at work. No performance issues, totally compliant with our security and network requirements, running all our corporate software. It's like having your cake and eating it, too. (Colleagues also rave about the VMWare Fusion virtual machine.)
  3. Windows runs just like I expect it to. It was critical to me for this machine to run our business image. Otherwise, it wouldn't be possible to use it the way I live, where work and life blend together like milk & honey. I can keep the practical bits running while embracing the new bits. (Pun intended)
  4. The OS X Lion software is more post-PC (I like the new scrolling motion and touch-aligned things) and more fun than previous versions. The App Store alone makes the software worth running. You get the same app experience on the Mac as you get on an iPhone or iPad. And the number of apps is growing -- all my regular apps (like Evernote, TweetDeck, Kindle) are there. Apple says 100 million downloads to Macs already.

Now the challenges. These are on the Parallels/Windows side of the machine and have to do with the backward compatibility of Windows software. In particular:

  • I haven't quite cracked the code on iPass, our corporate Wi-Fi access software. It doesn't seem to find sites or log on from the Windows side. And I don't have a corporate-provided Mac version.
  • Our Cisco softphone doesn't seem to run on the Windows image, either. That is, it might, but with my limited skills I haven't yet figured out how.
  • The display drivers, particularly in PowerPoint 2010, don't always work well. Sometimes when going into slideshow mode in PowerPoint, the display goes a little whacko. I can usually bring it back to heel by alt-tabbing my way to a different application and back.
  • Chrome (and Safari) run tediously slow. There's some network traffic thingy that I don't notice in the VoIP or video apps, but I do notice a lot (and detest) in the browser page loads. The Parallels people want me to disable my security software (no can do) and change the network settings (also can't do) to fix it. It ain't good, but I live with it.
  • I live in fear that that some other Windows application will crap out. Early on, I had huge problems with an uncontrolled process in our security software. If it happens again, then I'm back to rebooting every 10 minutes.
  • The ability to scale this solution up to every employee is still hard to imagine. I had to walk the machine upstairs and draw on highly expert IT resources to get the image ported and stabilized. I don't yet see how we could scale this up to meet the needs of every employee.

But these are far from deal breakers for a lone employee, and I am very happy with the Mac over our business machine. The coolest thing is that I can remain backwardly compatible with my organization's requirements while embracing the new architectures of apps and devices. Nice work, Apple, Parallels, and our network & security team! For some real research on just how popular this Mac-running-Windows phenomenom is, see my colleague Dave Johnson's report, caught here in a blog post: Repeal Prohibition.

What's your Mac experience running Windows?

Topics: Software, Apple, CXO, Hardware, IT Employment, Laptops, Mobility, Networking, Operating Systems, Security, Windows

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