Mac vs. PC: Which is better for business?

commentary The main reason a small business should choose Macintosh is because it's easier to use, easier to network, and easier to be creative with but what is the flipside?
Written by David Coursey, Contributor
commentary "Can I run my business on Macintosh?"

One of the hazards of having written a book about switching from Windows to Macintosh is that people ask me questions. Recently, I've heard the one above from two friends, as well as a guy I met while doing a "Meet the Expert" visit at a local Apple store. My response? You have to want to.

I say so because your business will have to make some trade-offs if it goes all-Mac. All three of my questioners operate small businesses, either by themselves or with a staff of only a few people; all three had plans to grow their businesses to a dozen or so employees. Oddly enough (or perhaps tellingly), one of these companies does tech support for Windows systems.

The major reason a small business should choose Macintosh is because it's easier--easier to use, easier to network, and easier to be creative with. The major reason a small business shouldn't is because software it needs to run isn't available for the Mac.

The major reason a small business should choose Macintosh is because it's easier--easier to use, easier to network, and easier to be creative with. The major reason a small business shouldn't is because software it needs to run isn't available for the Mac.

The most important software for many of us is Microsoft Office. The good news is that Office for Mac OS X is a very fine product, which some people say is better than Office for Windows. I prefer to think of them as different products.

MacOffice doesn't have a lot of the gewgaws built into recent versions of the Windows product. I don't know anyone who lives and dies by these new "features," so most people will be very well served by MacOffice. And yes, the Mac version is 100 percent file-compatible with the Windows version and has been for years.

You can also use AppleWorks, an office-like suite that comes free on most consumer Macs, to read and write a variety of Office file formats. For many people, it's all the word processor and spreadsheet they need.

There is one Office-related gotcha, however: Right now, there's no support for Microsoft Exchange servers on Mac OS X. Microsoft has promised that support beginning this summer, but I have yet to see a beta. This shouldn't matter to any of my questioners, since most small businesses are run on POP3 e-mail. There's also no Outlook for Mac OS X, but that's not much of a problem because you have several fine alternatives, including Microsoft's Entourage.

If you need something more complex, such as a customer relationship management tool like ACT or Goldmine, check out a Mac OS X program called DayLite, from Marketcircle. Some people live in their small business accounting programs. For them, Mac OS X can run its own version of QuickBooks 5 and several other products, including the popular MYOB (for "Mind Your Own Business") applications.

Most Windows database users will be very well served by FileMaker Pro, an excellent program that is also available for Windows. Apple's Keynote is not as fully tricked-out as Microsoft's PowerPoint, which comes with MacOffice, but is a very nice presentation package.

Despite the Mac's deserved rep as a good choice for creative types, I have yet to fine a decent, low-end, FrontPage-equivalent OS X program for creating Web sites. Nor are there any good mapping programs, a particular interest of mine. All the Norton antivirus and security apps are available, the Norton Utilities, too. Dantz Retrospect (also available for Windows) is my favorite backup application.

Mac networking is far easier than Windows networking. The new AirPort Extreme technology from Apple is easy to set up and the new base station includes a USB port for printer sharing. You also get easy instant messaging, music sharing, and file transfers with others on your network using Rendezvous. All the major instant messaging clients are available for OS X. Apple's iChat is an excellent AOL Instant Messaging client that I use all the time. Mac OS does well as a file and print server, and Apple's Xserve machines will do the job.

I haven't mentioned Unix since it's not something most small businesses are likely to use; if you need it, it's right under the surface of OS X.

All that said, people still complain that, in many categories, there are only one or two OS X programs. While that isn't exactly true, it's close. But the same thing holds for Windows, too, doesn't it? People who say there's less software available for Mac may be right in absolute terms. But I don't think there's less software you'd actually want to use.

The important caveat here: If you run special-purpose or industry-specific software, it likely won't be available for Macintosh. In this case, you've got three options: Run the app on a special-purpose Windows machine and use Macs for everything else, run it on a PC emulator on the Mac, or skip the Macs altogether and standardize on Windows instead.

One of my friends and the guy at the Apple store both had important, Windows-only applications. I recommended that they bring their apps to the Mac store, load them onto a Mac running the Virtual PC emulation, and see how well they ran--or didn't.

Virtual PC, now owned by Microsoft, uses real copies of Windows running atop OS X; it's much speedier than it was in the past. If you spend all your life in a particular Windows app, I don't recommend Virtual PC. But if you occasionally need to use an app that isn't available for Mac, Virtual PC can be a lifesaver.

The guy I met at the store runs a Windows-only mortgage brokerage application, which ended up running fine on Virtual PC. My friend uses a quote-generation application that talks to external databases. I'm pretty sure it will run on Virtual PC but am less confident it'll link to his accounting package. We'll test it and see.

So can you run a small business on Macintosh? The question is too complex to be fully answered in a short column like this. The applications on which most businesspeople depend are all available for the Mac and work great, but you may have to make trade-offs for nonstandard apps.

If you aren't ready to make those trade-offs, stick with Windows or, at least, keep a Windows box around just in case. But if you're willing to explore a little, a Mac (or a small office full of them) can be excellent company as you journey out into the marketplace.

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