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CIO disillusioned with Windows PCs, tests Macintosh computers

Fed up with the inflexibility of a Microsoft-centric shop, one CIO is tossing around the idea of swapping out his PCs for Macs. It isn't necessarily a great idea, say some experts, but it isn't entirely unreasonable.

Macintosh computers have long had proponents among business users, such as those in the art department, for instance. But in terms of pure numbers, Macs barely make the charts. Still, disillusionment with the Windows platforms is motivating some CIOs to consider a radical move: an enterprise-wide switch from Windows to Macintosh.

Do I continue to throw money toward Microsoft or begin to look to something else?
Dale N. Frantz
CIOAuto Warehousing Co.

Dale N. Frantz, CIO of Tacoma, Wash.-based Auto Warehousing Co., is working on a proof-of-concept project with his company's home-grown ERP system. The system is built on Microsoft's SQL server technology, but he's testing whether a front-end application would allow Macs to work with the SQL-based system.

"We use a proprietary application to run our business," said Frantz, who acknowledged being fed up with the rising price of Windows operating system licenses and hardware costs associated with OS upgrades. "The application was built in-house. It's extremely dependent on Microsoft. The question is can we re-code the front end on neutral technology that can run on Linux or Mac."

Frantz has seen some success in the early stage of the process. But proof of concept in a test environment doesn't necessarily prove it can work enterprise-wide.

"Can we truly come up with a front-end application that will perform enough of our business functions so that it can meet our operational needs?" he asked. "Right now I've seen a proof of concept, but it's a pretty big leap from proof of concept to actual production."

Auto Warehousing, the largest automobile processing company in North America, receives, accessorizes and ships to dealerships 5.5 million cars a year. A lot is at stake if he switches to Mac.

Frantz said not only would migrating to the Vista platform mean replacing every computer in his shop, but Microsoft also "seems to feel that each subsequent operating system is worth a greater amount of money than the previous one." If the cost of the operating system continues to increase, that's of huge concern to Frantz.

"Do I continue to throw money toward Microsoft or begin to look to something else?"

Another big turnoff: strong-arm sales tactics. Last year, Microsoft notified Frantz that he might have some improperly licensed software products in his environment. Microsoft wanted to send some analysts to search through the company for any license violations.

Frantz was surprised because he kept meticulous records of his purchases and license. He did an internal audit and shared the results with Microsoft, but Redmond wasn't satisfied. Eventually Frantz turned the matter over to his lawyer, who informed him the accusations were likely some sort of sales tactic for a Microsoft asset management product.

"We considered ourselves a good and loyal customer," Frantz said. "That left a bad taste in our mouth."

Frantz said he knows there are technological challenges, too, in moving to Macs, but he thinks it's worth exploring, at least.

"We see some things we could gain by moving iMac equipment onto the shop floors. The ability to do some videoconferencing, with cameras and microphones built in. We see some other technologies emerging that might be able to offset the cost of hardware, plus we have to buy new equipment to upgrade to Vista anyway."

Michael Silver, a research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc., said he hasn't spoken to many organizations that are interested in bringing Macs to mainstream business users.

"I still see Mac as nichey -- for graphic design, media and science," Silver said. "I can't say [mainstream adoption is] worth a shot for sure."

But Silver said some trends in the IT industry are pointing toward a future where Macs could supplant PCs in some organizations.

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Silver said many companies allow users to bring their own PCs to work, and many of those people prefer Macs as consumers. As a consequence, some CIOs have to support Macs in their environment.

Another trend is the movement toward operating system-agnostic applications. These are browser-based applications, Software as a Service and rich-client interfaces, such as Ajax and Adobe Flex.

These agnostic applications are taking an ever-larger share of the number of applications within businesses, but Windows-based applications still rule in most enterprises.

"If an organization is really serious about reducing their reliance on Microsoft, and running Linux or Mac on the desktop, reducing the number of Windows applications is most important."

Silver said 70% of applications in organizations are still Windows-based. He said the organizations will still have at least 50% Windows-based applications in their environments by 2011. Things are changing, but not quickly enough to facilitate a shift to Mac or another OS.

"As organizations bring in new applications, in general they are OS agnostic. They're browser-based applications, Ajax applications, Flash. That is the general trend. The issue is the older, legacy applications. They don't leave as fast as new applications come in."

Silver said there are technologies available that allow Macs to work in a Windows environment, but they're fairly expensive and not always a smooth user experience. Apple's Boot Camp technology allows Macs to run both Windows and Mac's OS X on one machine. But users have to reboot to move from one OS to the other.

Silver said some virtualization technologies will help bridge the gap between Windows applications and Macs. But he said the technology requires memory upgrades and Microsoft OS licenses, which could get pricey.

CIOs could try running thin client technologies on Macs, such as presentation technology from Citrix Systems Inc., but again the licensing of the technology could be cost-prohibitive and CIOs would also need to add server infrastructure.

Businesses looking to switch from Windows to Macs may have cultural changes to contend with as well.

Frantz said that although his staff members are enthusiastic about Macs, they're anxious about whether this makes them obsolete. Staffers are worried about training and support. The network administrators are troubled about potential interpretability issues. Developers are concerned because they don't know how to code for Apple Inc.'s software.

"People are a little bit nervous," he said. "I try my best to reassure them and tell them I'll bring anyone along for the ride that wants to come along for that ride." 

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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