Will Apple Ever Conquer the Office?

Not likely, though OS X and a welcome redesign of Microsoft Outlook are the latest fuel for enthusiasts' overoptimism

By Charles Haddad

I adore my Mac, but I try mightily not to let love blind me. You won't catch me grandly proclaiming that the Mac is now poised to conquer Corporate America. That would be like saying Poland will soon vote to rejoin the Russian Empire. It ain't gonna happen.

Nonetheless, I hear a rising chorus of Mac users contending that Apple is indeed poised for a renewed assault on the PC bastion of the corporate workplace. Such fantasies are spurred by two upcoming releases: Apple's new operating system, OS X, scheduled to debut on Mar. 24, and Microsoft's upcoming Outlook 2001 e-mail program for the Mac, the beta version of which is now circulating. These are both wonderful new additions to the Mac platform but neither are enough to win a battle long since lost.

First, let's look at OS X, which is a retooling of the NeXTstep Unix-based operating system. While hidden from average users, the Unix base is important. It will make OS X a much more powerful and stable system on which to run business-class applications. It will, for example, be able to easily host the Unix server applications popular in the corporate world.


  But is that feature enough to take market share from Windows NT/2000 and its Unix-based competitors in businesses? I think not, since OS X is just catching up to the stability and companywide compatibility that already exists in big corporate networks. The one new thing OS X does provide is enhanced ease of use and stunning graphics. But big companies don't seem to place much value on good looks and ease of use. That's why they never adopted the Mac in the first place. I doubt OS X is going to suddenly change that perspective.

If OS X won't win over Corporate America, then how about Outlook 2001 for the Mac? Scheduled for summer, this new Mac version of Outlook will at long last have all the features of its popular Windows counterpart. And the two versions of Outlook will finally be compatible. That's a godsend for corporate info-tech departments, which have struggled to manage Mac and Windows computers sharing e-mail through Outlook and Exchange, the program's server-engine software. Needless to say, the incompatibility was a big disincentive for companies to buy Macs.

Why Microsoft waited until now to work on Outlook is a mystery, given that its Office suite has long been compatible across platforms. But I guess this is no time for griping. We should be thankful to that big teddy bear of a software company in Redmond, Wash., right? Well, maybe not quite yet. You see, unlike the PC version, Microsoft has still not added the ability to program Outlook for the Mac.


  Such an omission cuts both ways. On the one hand, it means Mac programmers still can't write customized functions that integrate Outlook into Microsoft Office, the dominant suite of business programs for Macs and PCs. But on the other hand, this lack of integration has saved Macs from the epidemic of scripted viruses that have plagued the Windows version of Outlook.

All in all, Outlook 2001 is a great improvement, but it's hardly likely to prod a corporate stampede to Macs. At best, it will persuade some big companies supporting both platforms not to drop Macs altogether. And it will help keep schools and companies that use only Macs from dumping them in favor of PCs.

What would actually lure corporate users to the Mac? I suspect nothing short of sharply lower prices and dazzling new functionality. But Macs are never going to undersell the inexpensive generic PCs favored by most big companies. Nor does Outlook 2001, Word, or Excel offer much that's different from what's already in the Windows versions. So why should corporate IT managers switch platforms, given their priorities?

To be sure, the Mac isn't doomed without the corporate market. Macs retain a solid following among writers, artists, photographers, and graphic designers. They're also still dominant in the publishing market. And if Apple can win back its lead in schools and universities, education isn't lost, either. But Macs conquering the office? Dream on.

Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for Business Week, is a Mac aficionado. Follow his column every week, only on BW Online

Edited by Thane Peterson

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