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The challenges of supporting Mac computers in a workplace

Users love the Mac platform and frequently favor it over traditional Windows PCs. On the other hand, supporting Mac computers can be a struggle for those who do IT within your company or organization. And while a large enterprise like IBM can say that using Macs can save them hundreds of dollars per user per year, my own experience together with conversations with my colleagues in the IT profession leave me somewhat skeptical about such claims. I even wonder whether IBM might not still be upset with Bill Gates over the shrewd deal he made with them back in 1980 and are trying to get some revenge by replacing all their Windows PCs with Macintosh computers.

On the other hand, the Mac platform does have certain things going for it. Like user love, for example. End users generally welcome Mac laptops more than Windows laptops or desktop PCs as their work computer. And because of the way Apple bundles their operating system and cloud services with their Mac laptops, the purchase-to-deployment process for PCs is indeed probably more complex than for Macs as far as most larger businesses and organizations are concerned.

However, businesses that need to customize and lock down end-user systems still probably want to use PCs together with Microsoft customization and management tools like System Center and Microsoft Intune. But I have a feeling that fewer companies opt to go the customize-and-control route nowadays as the pace of technological (and social) change is so great that they may end up playing a losing game of catch-up (or more accurately whack-a-mole) with their impatient and frustrated employees.

But whether the total cost of ownership is less for companies that deploy Macs to their users instead of PCs is actually true or not is somewhat beside the point from the perspective of the IT administrator. What matters most from the perspective of your organization’s sysadmin is how easy it is to support and maintain Macs compared to PCs.

Temperamental and glitch-prone


I recently saw a commercial somewhere (I think it was at a movie theater) that showed varieties of mock error messages and dialogs that Windows users supposedly are frequently presented with to their consternation. If I recall correctly the commercial ended by suggesting that if you buy a Chromebook from Google you won’t see such annoying messages and dialogs. The reality, however, as a long time Windows user and one who supports a business network is that I actually haven’t seen an error dialog box on a Windows PC for a long time, probably not for half-a-dozen or so years. On the other hand, I’m familiar with more than one colleague who supports Mac computers in their environment who has complained to me about how unreliable and fragile Macs have been in their experience supporting them.

A colleague named Doug, for example, told me the following story concerning his own personal experience with the Mac platform: “In 2007 during the shaky Vista rollout (primarily due to the lack of drivers from Dell and HP), I decided to engage in a dialogue with several small customers who often commented during a computer problem that this wouldn’t be happening if they used Macs. When a client was encountering a problem, Mac-using family members would comment that Macs just work. Our small contracting firm did a wholesale switch of all eight workstations to iMacs and a Mac Mini as the server. I engaged a Mac-only consultant whose office was down the hall to assist. We found the Macs to be equally temperamental and glitch-prone as PCs. Something that surprised us was that the standard recommended remedy for a problem was to re-image the machine. For someone just looking at email and browsing that’s not a big deal, but for our average business user it’s a half to all day project to get them back to where they were.”

The massive elephant in the room

IT support is more than about fixing things and managing stuff. It’s also about providing the computing, storage, and networking resources your company or organization needs to get the job done whatever that might be. So it’s not a small matter when several of my IT pro colleagues who support Mac computers in their environment tell me that wholesale replacement of PCs with Macs in business environments faces a major challenge, namely, the fact that Macs just can’t run certain types of must-have business software applications. A colleague named Steve who works for an IT and business services consultancy in the UK states this plainly as follows: “No one every mentions the massive elephant in the room when talking about Apple. Accounts software. Businesses have to run an accounts package. Sage is the industry standard. Accountants like Sage, they understand it. There are alternatives, but they are always a mess of complication and compromise. Please don’t try and tell me the Xero is an alternative, it isn’t. It isn’t even in the same league. And for the small business Sage Instant (and its replacement) are £85 if you shop around. There is not one piece of business software available on Apple that isn’t available on a PC at a lower price. There is a mountain of business software available on a PC that isn’t available on an Apple.”


Of course, there are a number of different solutions for running Windows software on a Mac. What is not so obvious, however, is that these solutions also create a new problem when you use them, namely, added cost. For example, Tim, who works as a Senior Technical Systems Engineer II for a large enterprise, shared this story with me: “I worked with a company that wanted to jump on the Mac bandwagon, so the entire company switched to the Mac. Long story short, within six months, more than two-thirds of them had a flavor of Windows loaded on the Macs, so they could get their work done in a timely manner. This made for some very expensive Windows desktops, compared to what they would have cost if Mac hardware was not already purchased!”

Other colleagues disagree, however, about the challenges of integrating Mac computers into Windows shops and supporting them. A colleague named Richard, for example, told me that: “Five years ago I was a 100 percent PC person. Said I would never get a Mac. Back then, a Mac did not integrate very well into a Windows shop and legal software via Citrix. Three years ago I was told to purchase a MacBook Air to test and see if it was viable for the law firm. To my surprise after about a week of frustration on learning how to use a Mac, it integrated beautifully. Today, Citrix works great, get a Windows 7 desktop and can access all software as if in the office.” Tim, however, disagreed with Richard’s evaluation and said: “Having run a Citrix farm in the past, there is no way that the Mac can be cheaper than a PC if this is needed. The cost and administration of a Citrix farm will easily blow the TCO calculation for the Mac. The cost of the Citrix licenses alone will make the PC much cheaper, even if you can resell old Mac hardware at 40 percent of the original purchase price.”

Technical challenges of Mac computers

I’m not personally opposed of course to supporting Macs in a Windows-based enterprise since there are a number of approaches and tools you can use to manage Macs and even integrate them to a certain extent into an Active Directory and/or MDM environment. We’ve even covered some of these tools and platforms in previous articles here on our TechGenix site, for example, this one and this and also this. However, frustrations remain with many of my colleagues on this matter, which may partly be due to ignorance of certain tools and procedures but also built-in limitations concerning how Macs work. For example, Kevin the IT director of a global company that supplies environmental monitoring systems, listed for me some of the challenges he faces with supporting Macs in his workplace: “Macs are designed for you to do great things by yourself on your local files, not to find things on a complex corporate network. For example, AD automates PCs but not Mac computers. Group polices automatically map network drives and printers, even when an employee logs into a new computer. Even when an employee wants to add a different network printer, they see a list of network printers with descriptive names to choose from. This automation is invisible to Macs. Mac computers also can’t see server shares of printers and files. Each Mac must be manually set up to connect to network file shares, and to network printers, and if all printers are the same model which is the one they are trying to connect to? Printer shares are listed in the network with descriptive names. And Mac computers can’t find printers on other subnets. Mac is designed for a home network where everything is one subnet. If WiFi is a different subnet than LAN, then Mac can’t find a network printer unless configured by IP address instead of name.” And Ron, who runs a small business environment of just under 100 computers, concurs with this interesting observation: “Trying to tie the Macs into our Windows AD network has had its challenges. I would much rather support Linux systems than the Macs because Linux is easier to connect to the network."

Maybe 2019 will be the Year of Linux on the Desktop?

Featured image: Pixabay

Mitch Tulloch

Mitch Tulloch is Senior Editor of both WServerNews and FitITproNews and is a widely recognized expert on Windows Server and cloud technologies. He has written more than a thousand articles and has authored or been series editor for over 50 books for Microsoft Press and other publishers. Mitch has also been a twelve-time recipient of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award in the technical category of Cloud and Datacenter Management. He currently runs an IT content development business in Winnipeg, Canada.

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Mitch Tulloch

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