Two Years Into a Mac Migration, Learnings So Far
It’s been just about two years since management decided we should start offering the travelling professionals in the firm a choice when their laptops came up for replacement – stick with the Lenovo ThinkPads we’ve used for years or switch to Apple Macbook. This decision was made, I will freely admit, against my advice as the voice of all things IT. More on that below.
Since having the choice a large majority of users have chosen to adopt the Macbook. The users are management consultants who work much of the time either from home or at the clients’ sites. After some experimentation we standardized on the 13” Macbook Air with solid state drive.
As we’re just coming up on what would have been, in the ThinkPad world, the start of the next round of upgrades, it seems like a good time to look back and see what we’ve learned.
First off, why did I recommend against the switch? While our core productivity applications – Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes – were pretty much feature equivalent on both Windows and OS X, a large number of tools and auxiliary products weren’t available. I cited Cisco IP Communicator, Connectors and Notes/Outlook integration for IBM Quickr, and native login to our Novell network. I was also concerned about the MS Office integration built into our Notes-based CRM and limitations in our CRM migration options.
There was also a dollar cost to the switch. We couldn’t apply our existing MS Office licenses (Open License) or McAfee Security as a Service seats to the Macs, so we had to repurchase those products for each Macbook. The purchase price of each Macbook Air was a bit more than the likely alternative ThinkPad X series.
What of my concerns?
Many of our consultants had been heavy users of IP Communicator which, combined with VPN software, gives you a fine replica of your office desk phone as a Windows application any place you can get Internet access at home broadband speed or better. We experimented with a number of alternatives and got our Cisco resellers involved. Nothing worked. The Mac users lost that capability until just recently when Cisco introduced Jabber for Mac. That’s a partial substitute, giving the equivalent of an analog extension but lacking all the the soft keys and whiz-bang features that make folks pay such a premium for a Cisco VoIP phone system.
We use IBM Lotus Quickr for Domino primarily as a document management system. It is still missing any sort of Mac support. At Lotusphere the past two years IBM has said they’ve heard the request but can’t promise anything. The lack of support has definitely limited our internal use of Quickr. We use PandaBear from SNAPPS, a great free utility for uploading and download files with Quickr. But it’s the lack of email integration that was the stumbling block. It really is a bit of a nuisance to upload a file and then send a link on the Mac.
We had a mix of NetWare and Open Enterprise Server for file storage and were still doing a lot of printing through NetWare queues and Novell iPrint two years ago. But since then we’ve moved almost all the shared files onto the OES box and switched to direct IP printing. The Macs access OES as an SMB server and it really hadn’t been a problem – until OS 10.7 changed the way SMB authentication worked. We found a workaround but it involves an esoteric sequence of commands in a terminal window and multiple reboots.
MS Office integration with existing Notes applications proved not to be a problem.
So, given all that, what was so compelling that made everyone want to switch?
It was partly the things usually mentioned. The Mac seemed simpler and more user-friendly. There were fewer interruptions to download and apply OS and application updates [As an aside, I think that’s a case of those simply being less obtrusive on the Mac; I see about the same frequency of updates on both OS X and Windows 7.] Users were mostly comparing OS X to Windows XP, not to Windows 7, which has many of the same features as OS X which, depending on one’s perspective, either make the OS user-friendly or annoy you by hiding what’s really happening behind a layer of abstraction.
Until recently there was nothing in the Windows world with the light weight and long battery life of the Macbook Air combined with the slick screen, integrated camera, and general Jetsons design appeal.
So what were the learnings and surprises?
On the positive side, Time Machine wasn’t something I had focused on and it’s really a great benefit to deploying Macbooks. I give everyone a small external USB drive to keep at their home office or main office and they just plug in when they’re there and never worry about it. It’s already saved us a couple of times. And it also makes migrating a user from one computer to another nearly painless.
Two years ago the rise in all things Apple – iPhone, iPad, iTunes, etc. — and Apple’s ability to lock users into the Apple universe was not fully anticipated. Several of my users have jumped in and that’s become another source of satisfaction with the change from Windows to OS X.
On the negative side:
Supporting a small consulting firm serving many clients I’ve always tried to design our systems for maximum flexibility and interoperability. But many of our Fortune 500 clients live in a Windows-only world. Things we hadn’t anticipated include
online meeting systems which require code download but there’s no Mac code (and they didn’t enable the browser-only alternative)
Receiving files that only open in Windows — .wmv, MS Project
Web sites that require Internet Explorer
Formatting issues, especially in PowerPoint, exchanging files with older Windows versions of MS Office
Choices in potential new software are also somewhat limited if we add Mac support as a requirement. Very few CRM and ERP systems have any Mac support. Apple’s rapid release of OS X version upgrades doesn’t help here. Lots of programs that work fine on 10.6 don’t work with 10.7 (Lion). Examples include older VPN clients and software for telco-provided broadband cards.
And the multitude of device-specific connectors is a bit of a pain. You need a special adapter to connect an external monitor or projector (the latter a frequent need for consultants). The Air also needs a special external adapter to connect to a wired network [We’ve learned not to use that much; it’s a bit flaky and not really any faster than WiFi.]. And there is a special optical drive specific to the Air which must be connected directly to the USB port on the side of the laptop; it won’t work through a USB hub.
There’s no grand conclusion; we’re pretty much where I started. The goal is to make the users as productive and happy as possible. For many the perceived benefit of the Macbook outweighs the inconveniences. But anyone making the switch should understand the tradeoffs.