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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And many IT pros say that Macs are less expensive to support than PCs, both because they fail less and because users need less help. Although there's not much research data to support this commonly held anecdotal statement, Rebecchi sees it clearly in his support efforts: "We do see less hardware failure with the Macs, and of course there are fewer issues with OS problems."

Also working in Apple's favor is the trend to allow users to pick their own PCs. Spurred by increased use of contractors and telecommuting, IT has been loosening its grip on centralized desktop support, and executives at several large companies with "bring your own PC" policies tell me that Macs account for 20 to 30 percent of the PCs their users buy. If desktop virtualization technology finally takes root, separating the client PC from the data center would be that much easier, further creating opportunities for businesses to support Macs.

And for organizations that said no to Vista, the shift from XP to Windows 7 -- with its new UI learning curve and call for new hardware -- opens the door even wider for the Mac, given that the cost of a Mac is the same as a business-class PC and users will need to learn a new UI either way.

The case for the Mac's flameout in 2010
In a word, Windows. The debacle over Vista may have aided Mac adoption in people's homes and let "special" users (that is, people with the clout and tech savvy to get exclusive treatment) get away with using a Mac at work -- but Windows 7 largely fixes Vista's flaws. Companies could very well go back to being "Windows shops" and tighten the rein on "special users." Very quickly, it will be just designers and programmers who use Macs, if this scenario takes hold.

Although the first adopters of Windows 7 were understandably Vista users yearning to leave that bad OS behind, data from InfoWorld contributor Randall C. Kennedy's Windows Pulse service shows that XP users are rapidly making the Windows 7 switch in significant numbers. And data from Net Applications shows that Windows 7's installed base has recently surpassed that of all Mac OS X versions combined.

It's not just Windows. Microsoft's slew of server products are in the midst of major upgrades to 2010 editions -- and the early reviews of SharePoint 2010 and Exchange Server 2010 are positive, following on the high marks for Windows Server 2008. Ditto for Microsoft Office 2010. Microsoft's Mac support on all these products is typically marginal and usually delayed, so they skew IT against supporting Macs.

Other major IT vendors are similarly disinclined to support Macs on an equal footing. Examples include asset management tools from CA, Hewlett-Packard, LANdesk, Bigfix, and IBM Tivoli. Then there are all those business apps not available for Mac OS X -- pretty much everything except Microsoft Office, IBM SPSS's SPSS Statistics, and Intuit's QuickBooks.

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