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How About a Real Business Mac?

One of the earliest superstitions bandied about when it came to a Mac was that it wasn’t a serious business computer. In those days, real computers used command line interfaces, and Apple’s graphical flourishes were meant as entertainment. You couldn’t, they said, get any real work done on one of those little boxes. But since Apple wasn’t heavily into games, just what could you do?

Well, of course, there was the advent of desktop publishing, for one, which turned one industry upside down. I also recall how quickly musicians adapted to Macs, and used them for digital recording studios.

Later, when Microsoft embraced a similar operating system concept, by building a graphical interface layer on DOS, using technology they acquired from Apple — and don’t get me started on that subject — the excuses had to change.

These days, Apple continues to foster the impression that Macs are strictly consumer computers, what with the iLife suite bundled on every model. They’re great for getting online, sending email, managing your digital photos and music, but when it comes to word processing and spreadsheets, it’s still Windows all the way.

This, of course, ignores the fact that Microsoft’s Mac business suite is quite good, actually, and fully compatible with the Windows version. So if you must use Office, the Mac is not an impediment. Besides, all the Adobe applications that content creators use are still available on the Mac, where most actually debuted.

However, Apple hasn’t really gone after the enterprise when it comes to Macs, but that may be poised to change.

It all began with the decision to support Microsoft Exchange with the latest iteration of iPhone software. In fact, Apple went directly to Microsoft to license ActiveSync rather than use some third-party alternative that wouldn’t be fully comptible. That decision puts the iPhone in a different league, as a direct competitor to the BlackBerry. So businesses no longer have excuses to bar iPhones from their employees.

Indeed, recent retail surveys have demonstrated that the iPhone has risen to the top of the heap among smartphones in the U.S. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but we’ll know that soon enough.

When it comes to Macs, however, other than the Mac Pro workstation, all design elements seem to be geared to individuals rather than businesses. Beginning with Snow Leopard, or Mac OS 10.6, though, there is the promise of full support for Exchange.

That represents a potential paradigm change for Apple.

Now why would Apple add Exchange support if they didn’t intend to go after the business market in a way they never have previously? It’s not as if Exchange is a consumer-level email server; far from it. In fact, until its spate of network difficulties became well known, Apple had marketed the service formerly known as .Mac as “Exchange for the rest of us.”

But where does that put the current Mac lineup? I mean, the MacBook Pro and Mac Pro are surely creditable products for any company regardless of department. But the MacBook and iMac seem far more tailored for students and home-based users. Do you really expect to see them on lots of corporate desktops?

The other issue is the extra gear that Apple provides, such as the built-in iSight Web cams, which would surely not qualify for a work environment. After all, it’s not as if the boss wants you wasting your time chatting online with your aunt in Colorado, or your sister in Australia.

While Apple does let you customize your new Mac to some extent online — or via many dealers — you can’t ditch the consumer-grade stuff. You’ve got to take it the way they deliver it, iSight and all.

Now wouldn’t it makes sense to develop a parallel line of business-only Macs that ditched some of this stuff, and even shipped with hard drives without iLife? It’s not as if they serve a purpose at the office, except to allow you to goof off, right?

I can’t say that the price would come down that much, except for money saved from losing the iSight. But it would allow the enterprise to more easily add Macs to their ordering lists. What’s more — and Apple has done this before — they could provide custom-configured models with Microsoft or Adobe’s suites preloaded, for example. That would mean that a company wouldn’t have to mess with multiple seat licensing schemes, or manual deployment to computers via a network feed or direct installation.

Yes, such things are done routinely by PC makers who provide so many configuration options, the mind boggles. In those cases, however, the situation ends up being unduly confusing. Apple’s great advantage here is that they restrict themselves to a small number of models and configuration possibilities. So any business-oriented Mac lineup would have to be considered from the same vantage point.

Such a strategy might, in fact, create the need for the midrange minitower that I’ve talked about so often, the one that I’ve already dismissed as a viable Apple product. Prove me wrong, please!