You know the business world is changing when IBM, co-founder of the personal computer age, offers employees computers that run on operating systems other than Microsoft Windows — including, of all things, Apple Inc.'s Macintosh.

Apple hasn't traditionally been a common computer brand on office desks, except in certain niches, such as graphic design and publishing. But Macs are starting to draw the attention of mainstream businesses these days for a number of reasons.

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Apple Computer Inc. CEO Steve Jobs is silhouetted in front of an Apple iMac computer at the MacWorld conference in San Francisco in this 2006 file photo. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

First, the company's brand is riding a wave of popular consumer sentiment, bolstered by its market-dominating iPod line of digital music players and, more recently, the iPhone. Its slickly designed desktops and notebooks have also become something of a status symbol among style-conscious users. And Apple computers work well with Windows-based machines these days, thanks to factors like the ability to run Windows on the Mac, the availability of Microsoft Office for the Mac, and other strides in areas such as software and network compatibility.

This is helping the company's computer sales. In early 2008, NPD Research pegged Apple's share of the U.S. retail computer market at 14 per cent. Research firm IDC says Macs now represent 6 per cent of the overall U.S. computer and notebook market, with Apple's shipments experiencing a growth rate of 25 per cent in recent months. In comparison, the global PC market grew 14.6 per cent during the same period, and the overall U.S. computer market just 3.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, bad press continues to dog Microsoft's Windows Vista, Apple's chief competitor in the operating system market. A widely quoted Forrester Research report says 89 per cent of businesses surveyed continue to cling to Vista's predecessor, Windows XP, more than a year after Vista hit the market. One technology publication has even set up an online petition at www.SaveXP.ca in a bid to persuade Microsoft not to phase out Windows XP.

The result is that some businesses are looking at what's available besides Windows when it's time to upgrade, and they're kicking the Mac's tires.

Changing market

Winning over consumers who like Apple phones and music players is one thing, but are experiments like the pilot project IBM has started, along with Apple's strengths and Microsoft's woes with Vista, enough to encourage companies to bet their business operations on a switch from Windows computers to Macs?

"I think the day is coming, but I don't think we're there yet," says James Grant, president and CEO of insurance consultancy Signature Risk Partners Inc.

While he isn't expecting the business world to suddenly migrate to Apple machines, Grant has already made the move himself. Shortly after incorporating his firm in 2005, Grant did something nobody would do in the asset management field where he cut his teeth: he moved his firm, which has four employees, entirely to Macs. "The world of asset management is very IBM," he said.

As mentioned, IBM itself is dabbling with Macs for its employees. A recent InformationWeek article outlined how IBM has been running a pilot program since October 2007 that has more than 100 of its researchers using Macs to see whether they'd be useful for their work. An IBM spokeswoman in the article pointed out that it's a trial program and doesn't represent a major company-wide shift from Windows to Macs. But the idea of an IBM employee using anything but an IBM-compatible PC would have been unthinkable not long ago.

Others remain on the fence, though, because the move to Macs is still not easy for many businesses. For one thing, the choice of which operating system a business uses often comes down to software. There are packages available for all operating systems in popular categories such as office productivity, but choices are usually much wider for Windows users. In some niches, there simply are no Mac alternatives.

Stephen Smith, principal of Oakbridge Information Solutions, supports businesses that use Macs. While he says that in general his clients are happy they made the switch, "Some of them are desperate to find software that works for them on the Mac platform."

"There are many vertical applications that tie businesses to Windows," said Scott Knaster, author of Take Control of Switching to the Mac, citing examples such as point-of-sale systems and medical records software. "Those people have trouble even considering a move to the Mac."

Don Jones went entirely Mac five years ago — almost. In his case, it was financial software that forced him to hang on to Windows for part of his operation. "We have one computer that runs financial programs," said the president of management training simulation designer exper!ence it Inc. "Our part-time accountant uses it."

Hardware costs are another hurdle for Apple. Knaster, a former Microsoft employee, said it would be difficult for Apple products to compete with inexpensive Windows computers.

"There are so many companies making Windows computers," he said. "Their volumes are higher, there's more competition."

New playing field?

Even Mac-based businesses believe Apple could do more to present the Mac's strengths in a businesslike way. Though he admires Apple's "Hello, I'm a Mac. And I'm a PC." advertising campaign, Smith cringes when they appear on TV. "Too many of those commercials promote the perception that the PC guy is the business guy, and the Mac guy isn't a business guy."

Mac marketing efforts aside, the business computing landscape itself is changing — and some say it's getting more Mac-friendly. Web-based software such as Salesforce.com, Google Docs and Freshbooks.com is winning market share once reserved for software that must be installed on individual computers, for example.

'By making applications less reliant on Windows or the Mac OS, large firms can at least choose between Windows and the Mac.'— Author and Mac expert Scott Knaster

"By making applications less reliant on Windows or the Mac OS, large firms can at least choose between Windows and the Mac," said Knaster.

And the traditional argument that Macs cost more does not hold true in all circumstances. The price of a Mac may be generally higher than a PC, but there's more to the cost of owning a computer than the sales sticker. Al McDonald, a partner in financial planning firm the Life & Legacy Advisory Group, compared the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a Windows-based shared contact management system, including software, licensing fees and various other costs, to the TCO of Daylite, a Mac-based solution from Markham, Ont.-based MarketCircle Inc.

He concluded that he could buy and configure Daylite for 10 users and all the Macs he needed for less than the $25,000 he would have spent on the aforementioned Windows-based system.

"Single-user systems are cheaper," said McDonald, who admitted that while equivalent Windows-based systems might have more features compared to his system, "It does everything we want it to."

Smith even disputes the commonly perceived off-the-shelf price disparity. He says Dell computers that are "reasonably close" in specifications to Apple models differ in price by less than 10 per cent.

The software argument, commonly seen as a disadvantage, does offer one benefit, too. Due largely to Apple's still-small market share, security experts generally concur that Macs do not need the resource-intensive virus protection that every Windows computer must run.

Analysts have also compared the Mac's vaunted usability to that of its competitors. While stating that Apple remains a minor player in the business market (with a 4.2 per cent market share, according to Gartner), ChangeWave Research says that business users of Mac OS 10.5 ("Leopard") are five times more likely to say that they are "very satisfied" with the Mac than colleagues who use Vista.

These results dovetail with a summer 2007 PC Magazine survey that rated Apple computers above all their Windows-based competitors in terms of reliability, technical support and the likelihood that owners would recommend their computers to others. And some are saying it's this kind of sentiment that could be Apple's ticket to bigger business sales.

"One of my partners doesn't like to use computers, and he loves the Mac," McDonald laughs.

The author is a Canadian freelance writer.