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Believe it or not, prior to the great PC purges of the middle 1990s, the Macintosh was an enterprise computer. It’s the truth.

In bygone days, a good number of corporations and academic sites did all their desktop computing on the Mac, purchase orders were cut for thousands of Macs at a time, and Apple showed its stuff in booths at enterprise-centric shows such as DBExpo. Others had a mix of Macs and PCs. Of course, this was a time when a full-fledged GUI was a novelty to those used to a DOS prompt.

Despite its absence from that market for some 10 to 15 years, the Mac is making a comeback, starting with former Windows users now switching platforms. While this move often comes without the blessing of IT management, the trend has already started, according to some eWEEK readers.

In a recent column, I countered several recent online contradictions of Apple’s “halo effect,” the notion that a positive experience with an Apple product, such as an iPod, will lead audio customers to buy a Mac. I suggested that not only was there a halo effect, but that the halo would soon be felt in business and even the enterprise.

Now, some readers said this was a bunch of hooey.

For example, Daniel Earp, a system admin at a health care automation consulting company based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., said there was no Mac revival.

“Out of the maybe 500 networks I’ve worked on in the last decade, I’ve never seen a Mac. None of my friends who work in the industry have either,” he said.

After walking through his data center while waiting for an install to complete, he observed: “I couldn’t find a single Apple product in the building. I honestly didn’t even know Apple sold servers or network-based applications.”

According to Earp, any optimism on the Mac front must be based on pitches from sales teams or venture capitalists with some back-room agenda.

However, a technical engineer at Cisco, who declined attribution, offered a different picture of Mac adoption in the enterprise. He said Cisco’s IT department officially supports Windows, a version of Linux and Solaris.

“However, if you start attending meetings in any conference room within any Cisco building, you would begin to question just how official things are. There is a growing group of individuals, from sales to engineering to marketing that have abandoned Windows for good,” he said.

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He said while Macs are officially discouraged, Cisco often allows its employees to buy a Mac instead of leasing a PC. Employees present a special circumstance to support the purchase of a Mac.

“All you need is to say the common sob story that Windows ate my e-mail or some project, and you pretty much get one. This is exactly what Outlook did to me by the way, and why I finally switched.”

He said there were “visible productivity improvements” by Mac users over Windows users within organizations at the company. This was helping to drive switchers.

“The advantages to engineering is especially great. PC users are getting frustrated with Mac users as many engineering call flows, architectural diagrams, etc. are being whipped up in no time with [The Omni Group’s] OmniGraffl.e [Microsoft Office] Visio is nowhere as fast to work with,” he continued.

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Of course, there’s a downside, he said. Since Cisco’s IT doesn’t support the Mac, users are on their own for support. For hardware, the engineer said most Mac backers were buying AppleCare and taking their machines over to the Genius Bar at the local Apple Store.

For the usual daily application and OS support within the organization, the company’s Mac community has banded together, creating a wiki page on the best practices for the Cisco setting.

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One interesting point here is that over time, in small ways, Cisco’s IT department has changed its practices to support the Mac. This has happened despite the policy of no support for the Mac.

For example, the engineer said many tools that didn’t work within Cisco settings, including wireless and video meeting software, have been reworked to be more open.

“Cisco now accepts Safari as standard browser in most server applications. There are a few holdout applications, but most Mac users have learned how to navigate around them,” he said.

However, I am still struck by the contrast of today’s grudging acceptance of the Mac with the past. The current movement towards the Mac sounds positive and the despite the lack of internal support, the community of users is upbeat.

A dozen or so years ago, following the release of Windows 95 and then Windows NT, the Mac community was in a different place. It’s no exaggeration to say that user groups within organizations were under siege.

I well remember a series of painful MacWEEK articles in 1996 by my colleague Henry Norr about the fight to keep the Mac at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The series won a Computer Press Association award for Norr and we sat together at the awards banquet in New York.

At the time, the Space Center’s IT management decided to eliminate “unnecessary diversity” and phase out about 3,000 Macs and replace them with PCs running Windows 95. This was about a third of the desktops at the site.

To the CIO pushing migration at the time, the costs of duplication of services as well as interoperability hassles threatened the center’s ability to carry out its mission of “Better, Faster, Cheaper.” He dismissed Mac users as “Mac huggers” (like environmentalist tree huggers).

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“Making me take a Pentium is like cutting off my right hand and sewing on a left hand,” one of the NASA Mac users told Norr about his forced migration to Windows. “I’ll learn to use the left hand, but there’s no doubt my productivity is going to suffer, and I’m going to resent it.”

Despite a fight that brought in the press, Congressmen and an Inspector General investigation (with a report that sided with the Mac users), eventually the battle was lost. The Mac was out.

But see how much we think differently today about these computing goals. The common wisdom of a homogenous computing environment seems to be cracking.

Mac users make the case that Apple’s hardware and software platform are better than comparable Windows PCs. And that’s accepted today. After all, the Mac is mostly a PC nowadays.

Open standards are seen as a benefit and a strategic goal within organizations. The Mac plays well with others.

So, perhaps Cisco shows how the Mac will recover its foothold in the enterprise. Not with a big splash of acceptance, but with the slow advance towards official support. Or not. The Mac users at Cisco seem to be doing okay without the blessing from above.

Sites will gradually add support for the Mac because that support will help get the work done. Most likely the same tweaks that improve compatibility with the Mac also improve compatibility for Linux users.

And since some of the new Mac users are C-level executives, it will become increasingly tough for the IT department to keep saying “no.”

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