In 2006, Forester Research surveyed nearly a thousand IT decision makers at small-to-mid-sized businesses in North America and Europe, and asked what operating system was employed at the company. The results were as follows:

  • Linux -- 1 percent
  • Mac OS X -- 1 percent
  • Windows XP -- 71 percent
  • Windows 2000 -- 20 percent
  • Windows “other” (primarily Windows 95, 98 and ME) -- 7 percent.

“This data is not surprising,” says Ben Gray, an analyst at Forrester. “These businesses see no major drivers to get off the Microsoft roadmap.”

But there are signs that the landscape has changed over the past year. Windows Vista launched at the start of the year, touted as the most secure and feature-rich operating system Microsoft has ever released, but criticized by some because of cost, usability, and hardware requirements. And then there’s the upcoming Mac OS X Leopard, which is set to launch in October with more than 300 “innovations,” as Apple puts it. And, now, there are even Intel-based Macs that can also run Windows.

“It’s interesting to see how these numbers will hold up a year later and we’ll be getting this data soon,” answers Gray. Still, he’d be surprised “if we saw a jump in Mac or Linux more than 1 percent.”

And so we thought it a good time to chat with experts to see which operating system is best for you and your growing business.

The cost equation

On average, Windows-based machines cost less than Macs, but the gap is narrowing, says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research, a New York City-based technology advisory firm. “You’re not paying that much of a premium anymore, and pound-for-pound, the Apple hardware can offer better value,” says Gartenberg. “Obviously there are pros and cons for each choice, and your decision will also come down to what kind of business you’re running, if you need laptops or desktops, and what software you want to run on the machines.”

While Windows machines are cheaper, it might cost your employees more time when it comes to configuration and support, says Carmi Levy, senior vice president of strategic consulting at AR Communications, a Toronto-based consulting firm. “One must factor in the costs associated with managing your PCs,” says Levy. “Mac machines are, on average, more reliable and stable, which means less problems and fewer calls to the help desk, which has long-term cost implications.”

Vulnerability to viruses

Compared to Windows-based machines, it’s no secret Macs are less vulnerable to viruses, malware, and other security and privacy threats -- largely because they are less often targeted. “Part of this reason is because Macs are not as popular as Windows, therefore rogue writers of malicious software will more often target the most-used operating systems," Levy says. But some users say that Macs are also more architecturally resistant to attacks.

With the introduction of Windows Vista, Microsoft has added extra security measures to prevent users from falling victim to malware and other security threats. Does this new operating system change the game? “To a certain extent, yes, Windows Vista is less resistant to incursion than previous versions. It represents an improvement. But it’s still not everything Microsoft has laid it out to be as there have been attacks since it launched,” adds Levy. “Close, but no cigar.”

Software selection

There are far more third-party software programs available for Windows, likely because it’s the world’s dominant operating system, than for Mac operating systems. “If you buy a Mac you’ll have less choice. Period,” says Levy. “Instead of 10 choices [on a piece of software] you may only have one or two, which will likely result in higher costs because there’s less competition among developers and if you don’t like dealing with this company, they may be the only game in town,” he adds.

Gartenberg, however, believes there is “more than enough Mac software these days” and quickly points out Mac users can run the Windows operating system now anyway, providing they have an Intel-based Mac and a program such as BootCamp or Parallels. “Now you can have best of both worlds," Gartenberg says. "There is no longer a penalty for using a Mac today.”

Other considerations

While Levy says employees might save time with Macs because of less calls to call centers, he believes Windows, on the other hand, might be more familiar and intuitive than the Mac platform. “The majority of staff members already use Windows at home, so keep in mind there might be a significant training challenge on Macs -- plus it might be more difficult to find IT staff that can support the Mac environment because there are fewer of them,” Levy points out.

Gartenberg acknowledges that there are a few benefits to Microsoft’s platform. “You will find more selection with Windows-based PCs, such as those manufactured by Sony, Lenovo, HP, and Dell," he says. "You will have more choice in laptop sizes and weight compared to the Mac," he says, as Apple's lightest notebook is about five pounds, compared to some Windows compatible machines that are now hovering right under three pounds. "And there are no Tablet PCs on the Mac, a form factor that is important so some businesses,” Gartenberg says.