Macs and Businesses Just Don't Mix

OS X has given Steve Jobs's quixotic corporate quest new vigor. Too bad the PC's cubicle dominance appears unshakable

By Charles Haddad

Some things are better left forsaken. A super-jumbo bag of greasy popcorn, a chili dog slathered with extra onions. Yet, try as you might, you're forever succumbing to these guilty pleasures, only to vow "never again" after the last bite. For Apple, the corporate market is its chili dog.

Time and again, Apple has tried to break into businesses, only to retreat with a bad case of financial indigestion. Steve Jobs vowed upon retaking his throne at Apple that the company would, once and for all, swear off this market as a lost cause. Yet, somewhere deep within its heart, Apple still hungers for the corporate desktop.

That desire has grown stronger in recent months. I first noticed it at the annual MacWorld expo in January. The show featured the largest booth I can remember Apple ever devoting to business computing. It sprawled across a significant hunk of convention-hall real estate. Inside, earnest young men and women demonstrated how easy it is to set up a corporate network with OS X. I didn't see too many suits, but plenty of aging men in tie-dye T-shirts were playing with the OS X version of Office.


  Now, Apple has quietly made its next move. It has signed up a number of software developers in India to write business applications for OS X and port over (that's geek talk for "convert") existing Unix or Windows programs. Apple has kept quiet about this plan. News of the deal broke in the Financial Express, one of India's leading English-language business dailies. B Mahendran, Apple's country manager for India, told the paper that the company plans "to break into the serious business applications segment."

What's rallying Apple for a renewed assault on corporations is OS X. This new operating system is a retooling of Jobs's old NeXTStep OS, which was Unix-based. That makes OS X a more powerful and stable system, capable of handling corporate-class networking and applications. And it's now much easier to port over current Unix applications. "OS X has removed the constraint of technology compatibility for developing software for the Mac," Mahendran told the Financial Express.

Microsoft is helping, too. It released an OS X version of Office, the suite of software that dominates corporate cubicles worldwide. Office managers wouldn't give OS X a second thought if they couldn't still use Word, Excel, and Outlook with it.


  Most important, the latest version of Microsoft's Outlook e-mail program at long last has all the features of its popular Windows counterpart. And they're both finally able to share the same data. That's a godsend for corporate info-tech managers, who have struggled with Macs and PCs sharing e-mail through Outlook and its e-mail server software, Exchange.

Does all this mean Apple will finally win respect in the executive suite? I doubt it. The Mac's best features -- stunning graphics, stylish design, and ease of use -- are what corporate purchase managers value least. What they favor are cookie-cutter PCs at rock-bottom prices. Macs, I'm afraid, are never going to undersell these IBM clones. Nor do the Mac versions of Outlook, Word, or Excel offer much that's different from their PC equivalents. So why should corporate IT managers switch platforms, given their priorities?

At best, OS X will help Apple to hold onto the few corporate customers it has. And it may persuade some companies and school systems to keep supporting both PCs and Macs. But these markets aren't worth a huge new investment. Apple's money would be better spent expanding the lead it already has in schools, publishing, entertainment, and the arts. My advice to Apple: Just say no to the chili dog.

Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by B. Kite