They aren’t exactly fleeing like lemmings, but it’s safe to say many business users are less than thrilled with Microsoft’s latest operating system, Vista. While nine out of 10 computers in the world are PC’s running on Windows, the latest numbers show a steady trickle of users abandoning Microsoft-based PCs in favor of either Apple’s Macintosh or a Linux-based PC.

“Last week, I got the blue screen of death again and I swear that it’s the last time I’m reinstalling Windows. I expect it will take about three years, but I’m converting my office over to Macs,” says Reuben Swartz, founder and president of Mimiran, a software company that specializes in pricing analytics based in Austin, Texas.

In a Net Applications survey released in June, Macs hit a record 7.8 percent of the total operating system market share, up 5.69 percent in just one month. At the same time Microsoft has hit an all time low dropping a half of a percent to 91.17 percent. This may not seem like a big deal given Microsoft’s continued overwhelming dominance. But consider this: just five years ago Microsoft held just under 98 percent of the operating system market share, while Apple’s Macintosh bumped along at a measly 1.43 percent according to

How feasible to make the transition

The question is, for small business owners like Swartz, just how feasible is it to make such a huge transition in technology and what steps would a company take in implementing such a commitment?

“Apple’s backend systems aren’t anywhere near Microsoft, so large businesses won’t be going to Macs anytime soon. But smaller businesses don’t have that problem. I haven’t had a lot of customers converting over, but I’ve had some. All of them were businesses with ten computers or less,” says Josh Kaplan, president of Rescuecom, a nationwide IT consulting firm based in Syracuse, N.Y.

Kaplan offers the following tips to get the ball rolling:

  • Take an inventory of all the applications currently in use. Make a list of which ones are compatible with both Windows and Macs. In all likelihood, businesses will need to pay for an additional operating system license to run Windows on top of the Mac O/S. “It’s more expensive. But, you can have the best of both worlds. Companies that do a lot of file sharing are most likely to have conflicts,” says Kaplan.
  • Plan on an incremental roll-out. Most companies don’t have the luxury, or the capital, to convert their entire system over at once. More likely a switch over to Macs will come incrementally, as Swartz is planning to do replacing the twelve PCs in his office with Macs one at a time as they need to be retired. “In terms of the network, there’s no problem with a mixed environment,” says Kaplan.
  • Computers first, servers last. Integrating Macs on a Windows-based backend isn’t difficult. The same is not true the other way around. Kaplan warns his clients to change over to Mac servers last, switching over PC’s and laptops first.
  • Budget heavy duty IT support in the beginning. There will be glitches. That’s the one thing you can always count on when dealing with any kind of technology. Businesses planning on making a commitment to such a transition need to also make a commitment to not only additional IT support, but IT support that’s harder to find. It’s going to require support that is trained in both the Microsoft and Mac environment.
  • Plan on a learning curve. Given that nine out of 10 computers in the world currently run on Windows, it stands to reason nine out of 10 employees are trained accordingly. “To switch over because you hear Macs are easier may be true. But if your staff is used to a Windows world, they still have to relearn everything," Kaplan says. "The Mac will be counter intuitive for awhile. It’s something you’re likely going to deal with every time you make a new hire, as well.”
  • Factor in maintenance and replacement parts. In addition to the added expense of more specialized IT help, hardware is going to cost more as well. “Warranty wise, parts are easier and faster to replace on a PC. With Apple products, only Apple can fix its own products,” Kaplan says.

Weighing the pros and cons

Capital costs, retraining, a lengthy rollout process, possible compatibility issues --  it’s easy to see why nine out of 10 users are still sticking with Microsoft. Making the switch is clearly a big commitment and, perhaps, just too intimidating for most companies.

However, the computing landscape is undergoing dramatic changes these days that some would say is setting up a perfect storm of factors to ease those anxieties over switching platforms.

  • The move towards Web-based computing. Less work is happening on the desktop and more of it’s happening online. “Most of our core business applications run on the cloud,” says Swartz. Cloud computing is a euphemism for running applications off of a patchwork network of up to thousands of computers and servers on the Internet.
  • Apple is going after business users. Historically, Apple has settled for its niche customer base of consumers and mostly creative types in the business world; like graphic designers, for example. However now emboldened with a Windows version that runs on Mac and this summer’s release of the latest version of the iPhone that touts compatibility with Microsoft Exchange and Office and tools for IT departments to use their own custom applications, Apple has made it clear that it means to do a better job of accommodating business users.
  • Windows Vista is a flop. Microsoft would argue this point. But as of June 2008 and 18 months after its release, two separate surveys of IT decision-makers, one put out by Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. and the other by Computer Economics, both show that most companies ranging from small companies to the enterprise level have still not adopted Vista and have no plans to do so in 2008. “I loaded it on one of my desktops and just wasn’t impressed. Still, I offered it to my other employees who might want to upgrade. No one wanted it. I don’t know why I keep having to buy these faster and faster computers that just run slower and slower,” says Swartz.

Of course, there is a third option out there: Linux-based operating systems. But that’s a story for another day and one sending a chill down the spines of both Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Apple CEO Steve Jobs.