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The significance of the MacIntel

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It appears my column about avoiding ambiguity calls for a correction and a clarification.

The correction: As Joris Linnsen, writing from the Netherlands, reminds us, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there,” appeared in Alice in Wonderland long before George Harrison wrote it into a song. I should have given the Cheshire Cat proper credit.

The clarification: Some readers thought I took an unfair shot at General Eisenhower when I said, “Yes, Eisenhower said plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” And if you can figure out how to plan without creating a plan, go for it. I recommend a different formulation: Plan the work and work the plan.”

I had no such intention. While Eisenhower’s performance as president is debatable (which is to say, many have debated it), that he was a phenomenal general is beyond any reasonable dispute.

Eisenhower’s point was that events make plans obsolete. Bad military leaders stick to the plan anyway. The good ones use it as a platform for ongoing adaptation. My point was similar: Plan, then continually adapt your plans as circumstances change and new issues, opportunities and facts become available.

Which brings us, through logic so tortured I won’t bother presenting it, to Apple Computer and its debatable decision (which is to say, many have debated it, too) to base future systems on Intel chips. But unlike the subject of Eisenhower’s presidential performance, on which I have no opinion worth sharing, I have plenty to say about this subject.

Well, actually, I don’t. Mostly, the words, “Who cares?” came to mind when Steve Jobs announced the MacIntel, and the clamorous debate that followed hasn’t changed that reaction.

If you’re a CIO or are otherwise responsible for planning your company’s IT architecture, I suggest you adopt a similar stance. Apple isn’t, after all, planning to sell OS X on generic PC boxes. It’s merely replacing the PowerPC chip with Intel chips in its proprietary ones. So the MacIntel will sell for the same premium prices Macintoshes do. And the idea of running MacIntel computers instead of Windows machines brings with it these exciting scenarios:

  • Move all the Windows client software needed by your enterprise applications onto Citrix servers and deploy a Citrix client on your new Macintoshes.
  • Run Virtual PC for all your Windows client software, still deploying Citrix servers and clients for the odd applications that stubbornly refuse to run on it.
  • Replace every enterprise application that requires anything Windows, experiencing colossal conversion costs along with the loss of your job for showing equally colossal poor judgment.

In our consulting business, we advise clients to evaluate technical solutions in four dimensions: technology, features and functionality, market viability, and vendor desirability. To help you ignore the noise, here’s how the Mac stacks up:

Technology: Superior to every other desktop alternative. MacIntel’s architecture, construction, and security will beat both Windows and the entire bewildering array of Linux distributions because of OS X. MacIntel hardware will be comparable to Wintel; in any event they won’t differ enough to matter to anyone other than industry wonks, who think hardware comparisons make fascinating reading.

Features and functionality: OS X has everything a desktop OS needs at the moment. MacIntels will be fully administrable, and will integrate with directory services and access server file systems just fine. When evaluating MacIntel, though, you have to include the question of compatibility with your whole installed base of software. For most enterprises, MacIntel, as Macintosh before it, rates better than Linux but worse than Wintel. Your mileage, of course, may vary, and MacIntel may also rate very well for some corporate niches, such as marketing and media production. Where it does, Macintosh rated just as well, of course.

Market viability: Macintosh is a niche player — Linux appears to have surpassed it; the two together claim perhaps 6% of the total market. Market viability matters — for staffing, and for assessing the extent to which developers will support the platform in the future. MacIntel inherits Macintosh’s marketshare and does nothing to change it.

Vendor desirability: Apple provides little support for enterprise IT, and is legendary for its shabby treatment of distributors and early adopters. Add to that the Mac’s premium pricing and MacIntel is a clear loser when considered from this perspective.

The short version: The Macintosh has always offered terrific technology, and has never had anything else going for it. MacIntel offers the same terrific technology and lack of anything else, running on a new chip.

Big deal.