June 08, 2009, 4:00 PM — It's the OS that won't go away, despite many enterprises' avowed distaste and Apple's own public disinclination to support enterprise usage. And yet, the newest Mac OS -- Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, due to be released later this summer -- has two major changes aimed directly at business users and the IT staff that supports them.
Despite that mutual disinterest, metrics from both IDC and Gartner show that Mac OS has held steady in U.S. market share, hovering between 7 and 8 percent (with a share of about 4 percent in business). And, according to a Technology Intelligence survey, nearly a quarter of businesses have at least 30 Macs. As for Mac OS's showing among those connected to the Internet, NetApplications has Mac OS X at 9.8 percent. Even if IT doesn't like the Mac's presence, and even if Apple doesn't care to commit to enterprise support, Macs are now better business clients than ever.
[ Get the full details on the new Mac OS in the Mac OS X Snow Leopard Bible by InfoWorld's Galen Gruman and Macworld U.K.'s Mark Hattersley. ]
Native Exchange support on a Mac
You could easily argue that Apple's public lack of interest in business users masks a stealth strategy to worm its way into the enterprise without being held accountable. A year ago, the iPhone added native Exchange support via Microsoft's ActiveSync, including remote kill capabilities and other management features via Exchange. The new iPhone OS 3.0 due out this summer is said to extend the business-oriented security features even further. And Mac OS X Snow Leopard will come with native Exchange support via ActiveSync as well, so you can use Apple's Mail client or Microsoft's Entourage client with Exchange 2007 Server natively -- no longer are you restricted to using IMAP. But note the requirement to use Exchange 2007 for native access, though there's no need for an Exchange client license on the Mac.
In business, using ActiveSync at first appears to be a nonevent. It's simply there, enabling Microsoft's Entourage (2004 or 2008) to keep synced with your Exchange server, updating your folders regardless of whether you open them. Connecting to an Exchange 2003 Server via Apple's Mail is done via IMAP, which Snow Leopard's Mail 4.0 calls IMAP Exchange and Leopard's Mail calls simply Exchange. In other words, ActiveSync doesn't do anything; Mail continues to synchronize based on the schedule you've chosen, and as with the iPhone, folder mail is updated only when the folder is opened. Connected to an Exchange 2007 Server, however, Mail acts like Entourage -- persistently synced.
Using Exchange 2007 has subtle implications for Mail. For example, if you set up Mail with an Exchange 2007 account, deleted messages are moved to the server's Trash folder automatically, not kept locally. You can also set up an Exchange root path.
Mac OS X Snow Leopard adds native Exchange 2007 support to more than just Mail. Address Book and iCal can both be set to sync directly with Exchange 2007 -- no more of error-prone synchronization through Mac OS X's Sync Services. As with the iPhone, you can select which services you want Mac OS X Snow Leopard to sync, enabling business users to maintain personal calendars in iCal and/or personal contacts in Address Book, while keeping their business information in Exchange.
iCal has an integrated view of both Exchange calendars and personal calendars, just as Address Book shows an integrated view of Exchange contacts and local contacts. And if you've set up iCal and Address Book to sync with Exchange 2007, dragging an Address Book contact onto iCal sets up an appointment via Exchange. If you use meeting room locations in Exchange, iCal can look for next available time in a meeting room and reschedule meeting automatically.
What this means to IT is that your Mac users now interact with Exchange like Windows users, and the process is more invisible for them -- if you use Exchange 2007.
There are some non-obvious benefits as well. For example, if you equip your business users with BlackBerrys and use the BlackBerry Enterprise Server to sync the mobile devices with Exchange, you can ensure that Entourage (or Mail, iCal, and Address Book) are automatically synced as well, without having to use Sync Services and a third-party tool such as PocketMac SyncManager. Of course, the same advantages apply if your business users have iPhones or other Exchange-compatible devices.
Good riddance to AppleTalk
Beyond adding native ActiveSync support, Mac OS X Snow Leopard kills a technology IT has long hated: AppleTalk. Ever since it introduced Mac OS X nearly a decade ago, Apple has methodically shifted more and more of the Mac's networking to IP. Mac OS X Snow Leopard completes that transition, removing the AppleTalk protocol completely. Mac OS X is now IP-based.
This is another nearly invisible change. The AppleTalk pane goes away in the Network system preference settings for Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections. But it means the chatty AppleTalk protocol simply cannot be used by Macs running Snow Leopard, so you no longer need to support it, nor worry about it clogging your network bandwidth.
What else has changed
In many respects, based on what Apple has shown at WWDC 2009, using Snow Leopard is likely to be a nonevent for users and IT, outside the newfound ActiveSync and Exchange 2007 support. The really big changes are under the hood: a sped-up Java processor; a new parallel-processing architecture called Grand Central, to support multicore-enabled applications; the ability to steal processing capability from graphics cards when you're not playing games; and a faster video engine in the revamped QuickTime X engine. Optimized apps will thus run faster on Snow Leopard due to processor optimization, and Web, video, and animation should run faster, period.
The UI is nearly identical to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, so there should be almost no learning curve for either IT or users. (An updated Safari 4 has the most notable UI changes.) But there are a few small changes to be aware of both as a user and as someone supporting users:
There are new controls over text input for Chinese languages, including the ability to use gestures on a newer Mac's trackpad to write Chinese characters, picking up an iPhone capability.
In the Dock, if you click and hold on an app's icon, you see images all the windows open for that application (something Windows 7 will also do when it ships in October). The Stacks feature in the Dock now lets you drill into subfolders.
In Icon view in the Finder, there's now a magnificiation slider, and the icons are live previews, so you can play movies, page through PDFs, and so on.
There are likely to be a raft of similar-scale enhancements in the final version when it ships later this year (upgrades start at $29 per user).
The latest Mac OS fits that much easier into business IT
Despite its public diffidence about enterprise adoption, Apple has made Snow Leopard an easier fit for the enterprise. ActiveSync support, the death of AppleTalk, and various security enhancements are of little use to the consumer audience that Apple formally targets.
Ironically, the lack of fundamental changes that could break applications or require user retraining should also appeal to enterprises -- especially those whose mixed environments will soon require significant resources to accommodate the coming shift from Windows XP to Windows 7. Either way, organizations that use Macs will be able to ease their Mac management, and those that are considering Mac adoption now have a few more obstacles removed.