Does the Mac Measure Up for Intensive Business Use?
Macs have made great progress in supporting the needs of business users in recent years. Almost every important application needed for business users is available on the Mac today, including the Microsoft Office suite. The Safari browser is right up with or exceeding the others in standards compatibility. WiFi connectivity is excellent. The user interface is carefully crafted to be efficient and easy to use. For those few applications where only Windows versions are available, VMware or Parallels offer the promise of always-available access.
Combined with the outstanding iMovie, iPhoto, and other consumer applications, the Mac seems like a shoo-in for corporate users who spend their days with intensive business use and their evenings and weekends having fun with movies, photos, and other distractions. Does the Mac measure up?
Our Usage Model
I’m writing this post as an observer and frequent emergency IT supporter of a business user who happens to be my wife. She is a C-level executive at a not-for-profit organization with about 100 employees, and is in charge of a lot of stuff with not a lot of staff. This means having a calendar that would scare the bejeesus out of me with 3, 4, 5 appointments a day, deliverables to everyone from clerks to the Board, over 100 emails a day, many with attachments in all kinds of formats, demands from attorneys to look up obscure information from a document prepared three years ago with about 5 minutes’ notice, frequent deadlines on small and big projects, and so on. She had carefully organized her digital life on Windows machines over the years to meet these requirements and still have a life.
The requirement for a computer for this kind of user is complete compatibility with the great majority of people and systems she works with, and very high efficiency–everything has to work the first time (once learned), every time. There cannot be any showstoppers—things that prevent, or greatly inconvenience, getting normal work done.
Applications Inventory, or Can We Do This?
We knew it would be a lot of work to change platforms, and there needed to be a clear benefit to it. For us the benefits were the lighter and smaller hardware and iPhoto and iMovie, as long as there were no significant downsides for anything else.
We inventoried the Windows machine for all important applications, researched the availability and user reviews of Mac versions, and made a spreadsheet of application compatibility. Only when we were confident we had every important application covered, either through native Mac support for frequently-used applications or could tolerate less-frequently used applications through virtualization, we went ahead and took the leap.
In all, we catalogued 30 applications and divided them into the following groups:
- Mac Native: 22 applications; fully compatible Mac version exists, or a better solution exists on the Mac (such as iMovie, iPhoto, etc.)
- Windows only: 6 applications; we’d have to use the application under virtualization because a Mac alternative did not exist
- Alternative: 2 applications; we’d need to move to a different approach anyway, such as cloud or other kind of usage
All the non-native applications were deemed occasional use and not critical for day-to-day business work. However, there were two Windows only applications that could be deal-killers for others:
- Intuit QuickBooks: This is a mission-critical application although not too frequently used, so a little extra time can be budgeted to use it when needed. Unfortunately Intuit’s QuickBooks Mac support is horrendous. QuickBooks on the Mac isn’t QuickBooks at all. If you need to use QuickBooks frequently, stay on a PC.
- Microsoft Visio: No alternatives, but rare usage. We can deal with it under virtualization.
We did not consider using Boot Camp as an option and would not consider it today.
Over the 2011/2012 holiday break we switched from Windows to a MacBook Pro running Lion (Mac OS X 10.7). It’s “we” because we knew up front it would be a mutually involving project. This post is a summary of what we have learned. Our conclusion at this point is that the Mac is not yet ready to be a full-fledged Windows replacement for this kind of user. It has issues in numerous important areas, mostly because the Mac is still a small presence in the business world.
Compatibility is Not the Same for Everyone
The big question is what does “compatible” mean? Compatibility might just mean the ability to read and write the same file formats. For a serious business user, that alone doesn’t meet their needs. The exact same file formats need to be supported immediately and natively so there is never an issue with file formats between users. Ever.
Email attachment methods need to be identical so that email users on “other” platforms never have any issue at all opening the attachment you produced, and vice versa. Ever. You cannot send a presentation packet to the Board and have half of them unable to open it.
The user interface, menu structures, and features need to match so people on different platforms can go to each others’ computers and work on documents together.
These are very stringent compatibility requirements. Of course we didn’t know how extensive these requirements were when we catalogued the 30 applications into 22 “Mac Native”, and wouldn’t find out for some time, mostly the hard way.
In any case it is clear that no open source alternatives are compatible with the critical Windows applications we needed to replace. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. So the job is to determine whether Software Company XYZ’s Mac version is really and truly compatible with their Windows version that everybody else uses. To some extent, a simpler problem.
Applications That Really are Compatible
Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac is about 99% compatible. It really does work wonderfully for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. We haven’t tried the other suite members. The only real wrinkle so far is that PowerPoint 2011 does not have an Equation Editor built in, requiring a cumbersome round trip to an external application to edit equations, so don’t plan on using formatted equations in PowerPoint slides. In any case, Office incompatibility is a deal killer. If this didn’t work perfectly we’d have to send the Mac back. Thanks to Microsoft for putting a huge effort into bringing the Mac and Windows versions of Office into virtually perfect compatibility.
Applications on our list that are, as of this writing, essentially fully compatible, meaning no issues with file formats, user interfaces, access, etc.:
- Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac
- EndNote X5
- Thunderbird (email)
- SonicWall NetExtender (VPN)
- Inspiration (mind maps, brainstorming)
- Adobe Acrobat X Pro, including OCR feature
After reading reviews we picked VMware Fusion 4 for the virtualization solution because between VMware and Parallels 7, VMware seemed to have better reliability. Features and speed count less than making sure it doesn’t crash.
IT help is required to be certain that the shared folders under VMware do in fact show up transparently on the Mac side and are the obvious places to save documents in VMware. This is not trivial and you absolutely have to get this right. Anything that causes delay or confusion getting to the right version of the right document is a problem for a business user.
Windows XP Pro
To support very old legacy applications where we still had the original install CDs, we decided on Windows XP Pro under virtualization instead of moving to Windows 7.
Running Two Computers is Confusing, and More Work
Installation of XP Pro went without a hitch and once you learn a little about VMware Fusion’s setup, it is not too hard to configure Fusion. It is reasonably smart about detecting printers and other network resources through the Mac, but not 100% of the time. This is a clue that we should not count on critical applications being fully available under all conditions and at all times under VMware.
When the Mac runs Windows under virtualization, there are really two computers running at the same time. That means maintenance on both (OS updates, problem resolution, why doesn’t my video play?). The two computers also need to talk to each other correctly to share files, peripherals, network access, printers, etc. There is going to be confusion. Sometimes we find that Windows complains that the Mac side is trying to access something in Windows and it pops up an alert box indicating a possible security violation. It’s certainly not obvious what is going on.
The concept of assigning devices to either the Mac or the virtual machine can be mysterious. Most of us don’t naturally think “Oh right, the Mac still has the DVD drive assigned to it, I’ll just pull down the VMware menu and reassign it to the virtual machine.” And if the Mac side has the DVD mounted, you can’t reassign it until you go back to the Mac side, open a Finder window, and unmount it. It’s much more complex and confusing than it should be, especially for a non-techie.
Windows Setup and Use Under VMware is Non-Standard
VMware seems to creep memory or other resource usage so that you must shut down Windows and then quit the VMware Fusion application when you are done. You need to disable Windows auto updates and all the other things that run by themselves in Windows when it thinks it has a whole machine available to run it all the time. Otherwise trying to do a quick Windows startup to run one application for a minute results in a long wait while the latest big update installs itself and Windows is unable to shut down. I wish there were a guide to setting up Windows in a virtual machine; maybe someone who has dealt with this before can provide a link.
These issues make it even more important to ensure that no critical applications live under virtualization under the usage model we have.
One thing that isn’t easily noticed until now is that many professional applications are Windows only. These are applications such as AICPA training classes distributed on DVD; they require Windows to set up. Key sources for professional data in the accounting and finance fields appear to distribute quarterly updates only in Windows format.
For professionals who need to keep up on training and data updates, check whether critical content is available in platform-agnostic formats. Surprisingly, many seem to assume their world consists only of Windows machines.
A Barely Passable Solution
Virtualization is a great step forward but it is not a panacea. It has issues and limitations. If you have a frequently-used mission critical application that can only run under Windows, stay with Windows. In our case, it is an acceptable second line of defense but it is cumbersome. It’s OK, barely passable, and that’s about the best we can say.
There are a number of other issues that have come up that we weren’t expecting. Primary among them is that Mac support is, by and large, not as strong as Windows support across the software industry, and once in a while it becomes a problem.
WebEx Mac Client and USB Headsets Don’t Play Together
Nuance’s Dragon Dictation software works almost as well on the Mac as on Windows (supposedly it’s the same underlying speech recognition engine, but it just doesn’t seem to work quite as well). But since the Mac doesn’t have a normal microphone input jack, you have to buy and use a USB headset, and Nuance provides a recommended list.
But then we discovered that the WebEx Mac client freezes after a few seconds while using a USB headset. Of course it takes a while to figure this out. In the meantime the chorus “She’s on a Mac” makes the rounds of the other participants as the explanation for why the WebEx session cuts out. It turns out it’s a known problem with the WebEx client software and “will get fixed soon”. We’ve been waiting for over 3 months and others appear to have been waiting much longer than that.
Safari is a perfectly fine web browser and is strongly standards compliant. If only web sites were too. Numerous important web sites (banks, some governmental) that are critical for business do not work with Safari without unacceptable compromises. Some of these are just poor design that Mac OS X trips up on more than Windows.
For example: Comerica Bank’s secure banking website for small businesses requires the installation of Rapport Trusteer, a phishing detector and preventer. The Mac OS X version has produced many complaints about slowing down or crashing Safari and the overall system. But we tried it anyway, only to find that Comerica’s web site requires that the browser allow popups. Safari does not have the option to selectively allow popups for specific sites, while other browsers do.
So the requirements to use Comerica’s web site for banking are:
- Download and install specialized security software that is poorly supported on Macs and has many reports of causing major system issues
- Enable popup windows in Safari for all sites, since Safari does not support site-specific popup settings
Of course when asked about this problem Comerica’s technical support said “Our site doesn’t support Macs.” You’ll hear that a lot, even if it’s not true. Poor support isn’t no support although it may be a fine line in practice.
This is partly Apple’s fault for not allowing per-site popup control, and so the second issue can likely be eliminated by using Firefox, Chrome, or Opera, none of which we’ve tried since Safari integration is a nice feature that makes the Mac (theoretically) easier and more pleasant to use.
Using Internet Explorer 8 under VMware works fine here once the Comerica site is added to the allowed popup list.
Wonderful ergonomic keyboards and keypads are made by Gold Touch. The PC versions do not work on Macs. This is unlikely a Mac problem, but more likely an example of poor product design (how difficult is it to implement a USB-based keyboard standard)? But there it is, and this caused mysterious crashes and freezes of the Mac for months until we figured it out. We bought the new Mac versions of both keyboard and keypad, and they work fine, but they’re not as well constructed as the older PC versions.
As noted above, the Mac’s fewer I/O ports may require some other peripheral upgrades such as USB headsets. With recent MacBook models, you may need to carry around a variety of adapters such as for VGA or DVI displays.
General IT Support
Far fewer people in IT Support roles internally or externally know about the Mac, and you are likely to encounter dismissive “We don’t support Macs” replies to problem reports even if the problem has nothing to do with Macs. See Comerica’s example above as one, but there have been many others.
Would we choose the Mac again over a Windows laptop had we known what we were getting into? It’s actually difficult to say. I think, on balance, no.
The advantage of iPhoto and iMovie are strong, the hardware is fantastic, but the disadvantages have piled up more than we thought. But there is no way to go back to a clean slate. A lot of effort has gone into learning the Mac, buying new versions of applications and peripherals, converting databases and documents to new versions. So we are unlikely to switch back to Windows. But we sure wish it weren’t so much trouble.
In the end the big issues are:
- Some applications are still not available for the Mac and the consequence of running them under virtualization needs to be carefully considered
- Virtualization is cumbersome, confusing, additional work, and unreliable too much of the time for this kind of usage model
- Surprising incompatibilities or bugs show up in various common situations that indicate the Mac doesn’t have the priority that Windows does
- The majority of technical support answers for Macs are off-the-cuff “sorry, we don’t support Macs” rather than problem solving; in fact Macs are almost universally supported although not to the quality of Windows
Few of these are Apple’s or the Mac’s fault, but are a consequence of market share. The Mac has made great strides in the past few years and its penetration into business is growing, so these issues may reduce over time. But they need to be carefully considered to decide today whether a Mac makes sense for your own business use.
To be fair, 90% of everything works just perfectly fine on the Mac. That is not bad. But when the remaining 10% takes three times as long to get done, you’ve just increased your 10-hour day to a 12-hour day. That’s the issue in a nutshell.