Why 'no Macs' is no longer a defensible IT strategy

More users are demanding Macs in the enterprise. Thanks to key computing shifts, supporting their appetite for Apple is now a straightforward option for IT

Microsoft: The elephant in the room
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of supporting Macs in a business environment resides in Microsoft's less-than-fervent embrace of the platform. Macs are by no means frozen out from the powerful and popular Microsoft Office productivity suite. In fact, thanks to Microsoft, Mac users can run Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook (called Entourage on the Mac) on their machines. This is crucial in heterogeneous environments, as it allows users to share business files and participate in the same e-mail, contact management, and calendaring system as their PC cohorts.

Yet Microsoft releases Mac Office a year after Windows Office, forcing dual-platform businesses to wait a year before rolling out an Office upgrade. Moreover, the Mac version of Office is never quite the same as the Windows version, in ways that add irritation to both IT and users. For example, display incompatibilities -- due to differing graphics engines -- have meant that Office drawing and art tools do not produce the same visuals on both platforms. (Microsoft brags that Office 2008 fixes this problem.)

What Mac Office 2008 lacks, however, is support for Microsoft's VBscript, on which most serious Excel financial spreadsheets depend. Mac users can see the spreadsheets' data, but not work with them. The reason, says Amanda Lefebvre, senior marketing manager of the Mac business unit at Microsoft, is that it would have taken two years to port the VBscript engine from the PowerPC code base (PowerPC was the IBM CPU family Apple had used for about a decade before switching to Intel two years ago) to the Intel code base. So Microsoft dropped this key feature to minimize the delay between the two releases. Mac users can use AppleScript and Apple's Automator script manager, but Lefebvre concedes this general-purpose scripting language can't duplicate VBscript's Office-specific capabilities. This compatibility issue is why Publicis Groupe is sticking with Office 2003 and 2004. "It's a major issue," Plavin says.

Lefebvre says Microsoft isn't ruling out a future port of VBscript to the Intel Mac platform, although she did not comment on whether Microsoft would consider a platform-neutral scripting approach such as JavaScript, as Adobe did three years ago.

Also missing from Mac Office 2008 is a filter for Office 2004 to read the new Office 2007/2008 file formats; a beta version is now available, but a final version is expected this summer. The filter for Office XP (2002) users was not so delayed.

Excel 2008 carries with it several limits on spreadsheet size that Excel 2003 had but the Windows versions do not. And Mac Office 2008 contains no native compatibility with Microsoft's well-regarded SharePoint collaboration tools. Mac users must use a browser to access SharePoint. But they can use Microsoft's instant messaging server, as well as check documents in and out, notes Andy Ruff, lead program manager for Mac Office.

A saving grace for many Mac users is that they use just the basic Office features, given that most spend their days using graphics, layout, and Web development applications, Plavin says. So most of the issues that a financial jockey or report jockey might encounter just don't come up -- but he notes that as the Macs move beyond the graphics department, these issues will come up more and more.

For some, this may mean a move to the open source OpenOffice, which provides a viable cross-platform substitute for Microsoft Office. Of course, when it comes to cross-platform communications systems, choice increases. IBM's Lotus Notes and a host of small players such as Now Software (for just calendaring and contact management), Kerio and POP3- or IMAP-based e-mail systems using clients such as Mozilla Thunderbird are all worth considering, especially for those who have found Microsoft's Entourage e-mail client not without its frustrations, as Aquent's Lincoln has.

"It continues to be buggy and inefficient -- and it offers a subset of features when compared to Outlook," Lincoln says. But he does concede that Entourage is far superior to the last version of Lotus Notes that he examined, whose Mac client treated e-mail as flat HTML pages -- "ridiculous," he says.

Close, not equal
It would be naïve to take in the Mac under the illusion of it being an equal player. It is not, as the various Microsoft issues and the ongoing need for VMs to run Windows-only software from a variety of vendors still attest.

But the Mac fits much better than it ever has, and the trend toward cloud computing is reducing the importance of the client platform to access both internal and external resources. Mac manageability is on par with Windows standards. So you can let your users choose the equipment they prefer, without undue worry.

And maybe you can even get a MacBook Pro of your own.

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