2010: Finally the year of the Mac?

Apple was a bright spot in 2009 in terms of PC sales, but the signals are mixed as to whether the Mac can grow beyond its niche

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Perhaps that ambivalence is why some market data suggest Apple's sales have peaked. After all, Apple has done nothing to bolster the support infrastructure for the Mac, and its bungling of ActiveSync support in the iPhone -- where businesses get serious demand from users for adoption -- further calls into question the company's business-use commitment

Yet one survey shows that 80 percent of enterprises support the Mac, making it a widely adopted niche product.

How Apple fares in this area is likely the key to whether the Mac can evolve beyond a beloved but marginal player and instead become a serious option in business.

The case for the Mac's ascension in 2010
For years, Apple has doggedly removed the barriers to business adoption of the Mac, while not compromising the UI, design, and media-oriented strengths that have always appealed to the Mac faithful. The elimination of proprietary ports in favor of USB, Wi-Fi, DVI, and FireWire; the adoption of IDE hard drives and PCI graphics cards; the elimination of AppleTalk; the inclusion of ActiveDirectory support in Mac OS X -- all have made the Mac enterprise-network-ready for years.

Moreover, Apple's switch to the Intel chip in 2006 allowed Windows to run on Macs, and the groundbreaking Parallels Desktop made it possible and easy to run Windows and Mac OS at the same time, thereby removing IT's lingering software compatibility concerns. Since then, the rise of browser-based enterprise apps -- especially those less likely to rely on Windows-only ActiveX technology -- has continued to make platform choice less of an issue for IT.

Snow Leopard's support for Exchange and VPNs now frees IT from the increasingly broken Microsoft Entourage email client, just as Apple's iWork productivity suite helps hedge against Microsoft's half-hearted commitment to Mac Office. Other features -- such as auto-detection of nearby networked printers -- help make it easier for IT to allow Macs in to the enterprise without having to devote significant resources to support them.

At the same time, Apple's sleek and solid MacBook Pro laptops have become the Mac of choice of professionals -- designers, programmers, and increasingly both IT pros and "regular" businesspeople. In terms of quality, they outrank all the major business-oriented PC makers (Dell, Lenovo, and Hewlett-Packard).

Yet they cost the same as equivalent business-class PCs. "When you look at the price for the 15-inch MacBook Pro and the Lenovo T500 -- our house standards -- there is really only a few dollars difference between the two. When we give users or hiring managers the order sheet, some come back to us surprised how close the pricing is -- they didn't think they could purchase a MacBook Pro for that price," notes Rob Rebecchi, IT manager for InfoWorld's parent division, IDG Enterprise, where about 20 percent of all PCs are Macs. (Rebecchi does note that many Mac accessories and Apple's support plans are pricier than their Windows PC counterparts.)

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