Finally, an Opening for Apple in IT

Macs as Unix workstations, the rise of laptops, and the dangers of a Microsoft "monoculture" are combining to create a real opportunity.
Written by Alex Salkever, Contributor

On Sept. 24, a group of seven prominent security researchers released a paper putting the blame for the recent spate of nasty worms and the resulting computer network outages on Microsoft. As they see it, the fact that Gates & Co. control 95% of the PC operating-system marketplace has created a "monoculture" that shares common vulnerabilities. This threatens to open the door to catastrophic failures of entire organizations when worms spread quickly over the Net. The paper proved controversial enough to get one of the signees fired, even though most of the info-tech world now agrees that monoculture is a serious problem.

One hates to profit from the woes of others, but that's precisely Apple's opening here. No, I'm not talking about consumer switchers. That campaign died an ignominious death after switching turned out to be less enticing than Apple led people to believe. (My wife says the iMac I use is so slow compared to her Dell that she would rather get hit with a switch than make the switch.)

Rather, the opportunity lies in the corporations that long ago stopped paying attention to Macs. Right now, three key trends are leading IT guys to take a second look at Apple. The first is the lure of the cheap and dirty Unix workstation. The second is the rise of laptops. The third, and most potent, is the growing frustration with the Microsoft monoculture and all too common worm attacks that gum up corporate networks. All three factors have long lurked in the background, but now they can't be avoided.

DUAL ROLES. A couple of my friends who go to LinuxWorld say they saw more Linux lovers toting PowerBooks than ever before. These are people who appreciate the Apple interface and the desktop software but also like being able to do heavy Unix and Linux lifting if need be.

Then there are my friends in the IT departments, who need to run Unix on a desktop to manage a network but also have to be able to talk with the Windows universe. They buy PowerBooks because they can do both, either with Office for Mac or Virtual PC, a Windows emulator. "[Apple is] trying to position the PowerBooks as portable Unix workstations. They are much less expensive than other Unix workstations," says Eric Bangeman, news editor and Mac columnist at tech news and reviews site Ars Technica.

I believe the Unix workstation users who are buying Macs are small in number and not enough to boost Apple sales on their own. But they're key players -- the same type of people who snuck PCs into the corporate environment under the cover of darkness while their overseers remained wedded to mainframes and other bigger computers. These are the folks who'll soon be making a lot of the buying decisions in IT departments. So they are the future, and they promise a bright one for Apple.

MOBILE FLEXIBILITY. That techies in the Linux and Unix worlds are buying laptops, above all, is telling. Everyone knows a massive shift is under way as the desktop market stagnates and the laptop market booms. I've heard various explanations for the trend. The rise of wireless networking via Wi-Fi has convinced people to switch to laptops so they can tote their offices with them both at home and on the road.

Plus, the replacement cycle for desktops is much longer than it used to be. Lots of people figure their old desktop works well enough for its chores, so when they go to buy a second computer it tends to be a laptop. In corporations, people love laptops because they let workers work wherever they want -- a key factor as more people adopt flexible schedules and become less tied to a cubicle.

Apple has been planning for the laptop revolution for some time. In fact, Jobs & Co. declared 2003 the year of the laptop. And they have managed to grab 1.1% in market share in the global laptop sector over the past year. "They have some great designs and are more competitive on a price-performance level. In terms of pricing for what you get, its more in line with the Windows providers," says Roger Kay, vice-president for client computing at tech research firm IDC.

DIGGING OUT WORMS. Why is that important? Because the PowerBook Unix crowd can point to their laptops and say with a straight face, "See, it really is just as good -- and cheap -- as a PC." That answers the bean counters and CIOs who would otherwise see very little bang for the buck in the lower-end Macs and overkill in the G5 PowerMacs. And, according to Kay, Apple machines are now vastly more compatible with corporate networks than at almost any point in the recent past, thanks to Microsoft Office and other shared protocols and software that let the two platforms play nice.

The third incentive is the monoculture threat. Mac users often smugly note that they never get viruses. They're largely correct. Until this summer, though, corporate IT departments didn't think that was enough of an inducement to justify a switch. Now, after spending much of July and August digging out from the Blaster and SoBig worms, some have hit the tipping point and are rethinking their decision to go all Windows, says Ars Technica's Bangeman.

Few IT departments are considering eliminating their Windows fleets altogether, of course. Rather, administrators are starting to think they need to have a few Macs around just to effectively manage their networks. The worms have become so fast and suck up so much processor power that even getting an infected machine to turn on and off can be a major problem. And using an tainted Windows box to install new filters to stop worm attacks is out of the question.

NO MACOPHOBIA HERE. So Apple has a happy trifecta. The Unix and Linux crowds love their Macs. The whole world is going laptop, where Apple has a strong hand. And the Microsoft monoculture has enabled killer worms to devastate networks. These three trends should fuel a slow but steady rise of interest in Apple products at corporations.

Even more important, these forces have seeded the IT ranks with a young crowd of Apple fans who don't have the Macophobia that has gripped Corporate America for the past decade. In due time, this could create an environment where, if Apple plays it cards right, Mac could indeed assume a lucrative role, even if it's a bit part, in corporate IT.

BusinessWeek Online originally published this article on 1 October 2003.

Editorial standards