Should Enterprise Turn its Back to the Mac?

Lately, I’ve had Mac on the brain—a state that’s stemmed in parts from P. J. Connolly’s coverage of Microsoft’s Office 2011 for the Mac, from Apple’s recent “Back to the Mac” event at its Cupertino headquarters, and from Apple’s disclosure that the increasingly consumer-oriented company plans to drop its most enterprise-oriented product, the XServe.

In particular, I’ve been considering where Apple’s insistence on tight(ening) control of its hardware, software, and third party application stack makes sense in an enterprise context.

The Apple event offered the public an early peek at the upcoming version of the company’s OS X 10.7 operating system. The new product, which is set to ship next summer under the code name, “Lion,” caught my attention in a way that no OS X release has done since Apple embraced Intel’s x86 processors.

I’ve been consistently lukewarm in my reception of most OS X releases because for me, the tight control that Apple demands over OS X and OS X Server haven’t come along with enough benefits to outweigh the limitations.

For instance, how can an enterprise IT administrator take seriously a server OS that’s banned, arbitrarily, from partaking in virtualization, the biggest server technology of the past several years? In a world in where server workloads are going virtual and headed for the clouds, it isn’t worth investing one’s time in an OS banned from running on alternate platforms.

What’s catching my eye about Lion, however, is Steve Jobs’ promise to make OS X more iOS-like in its function and management. While OS X fails sufficiently to outshine its more flexible OS rivals, iOS is an all together different matter.

When Apple’s mobile platform debuted, it blew away the competition and far outshone every other smartphone or handheld computer out there. And while Apple’s rivals have certainly upped their game, iOS continues to impress me.

For instance, Apple’s strategies for managing the limited resources of mobile devices by suspending and resuming applications as needed, and by offering up a set of background APIs intrigue me. After all, mobile devices aren’t the only sort of computing clients that suffer from hardware limits, and throwing more RAM at our problems isn’t always feasible.

What’s more, Apple’s App Store model for vetting and deploying applications, while certainly limiting, could actually work well in an enterprise setting–provided, of course, that an enterprise’s own administrators could control the system and make their own vetting choices.

As a Linux aficionado, I cringe over the hood welded shut nature of Apple’s products, but in a managed PC setting, I’m a huge fan of client control technologies such as SE Linux and Application Whitelisting. The client as appliance model stands to save IT time fiddling with desktops and free up resources better directed at driving business value.

Obviously, I’m making some leaps here. As currently situated, Apple and its platforms are not really tailored for, or aimed at, enterprises. With that said, news of enterprise uptake of the iPad keeps coming, and, through reported support deals with Unisys and local resellers, Apple appears to be taking business sales and support more seriously.

Even if Apple opts not to embrace the enterprise (a continued holdout against virtualization would be a dealbreaker) a more iOS-like OS X could still deliver more locked-down and tightly-manageable clients for companies through the same forces of competitive osmosis that’s led smartphone vendors to remake their wares in the iPhone’s image.