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Mac Enterprise Apps and the Evolution of Open Source

By Ned Lilly MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Apr 21, 2009 4:00 AM PT

It's no secret that Apple has dominated the headlines in computing over the last several years, earning new devotees through consumer-aimed offerings like the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone. Whether purposeful or not, gradually or suddenly, Macs have now roared into the business world, with the user-friendly, intuitive capabilities that appeal to home users demonstrating themselves to be very applicable within the enterprise.

Mac Enterprise Apps and the Evolution of Open Source

Macs also afford freedom and flexibility that's not available with a PC -- the ability to use nearly any operating system, be it OS X, Windows or even Linux. Flexibility and ease of use are driving the adoption of Macs for everyday business uses, resulting in a demand for enterprise-focused capabilities.

Last year, Yankee Group released survey results that shed light upon this emergence of Macs. From a Web-based survey of 750 global IT administrators and C-level executives, the research uncovered that "... nearly four out of five businesses -- approximately 80 percent -- have Macs and the OS X operating system installed in their networks."

This trend of Mac adoption in the enterprise results in the need for Mac development and support. Recently, IT staffing company Veritude estimated that over 17 percent of companies are now looking for Mac developers, more than tripling the previous findings of 5 percent.

There exists a growing number of new users who say the main driver for adoption of new enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms is the desire to run them on Macs and PCs alike. Some of these businesses are running solely on Macs; others are adding Mac systems to blend in with their existing hardware. In either case, there is no question that Macs are in the enterprise and are beginning to be expected to do some more serious "business" tasks.

The Mac/PC Grab Bag

How are Macs faring in this realm thus far? In all honesty, it's still early. While there is more third-party software, there's still a long way to go. Some IT managers, perhaps overly comfortable in their Microsoft-certified perches, are reluctant to take on what they perceive as a new set of responsibilities.

Further compounding this situation is the fact that there are very few instances in which Apple hardware has replaced the old systems wholesale. Instead, it's often a grab bag of Macs and PCs. This heterogeneous environment creates a new set of issues for IT managers, developers and users: In addition to the paucity of truly cross-platform enterprise solutions, interconnections between different platforms and systems can be a challenge.

One way to overcome these obstacles is open source. Open source solutions can work across multiple platforms, often integrating Macs and PCs better than proprietary competitors. Cost also plays a significant role, of course, as you can't get cheaper than the "free" price tag of open source. However, more important over the long run is the flexibility afforded by open source, which allows users to avoid vendor lock-in and the familiar forced march of complex solutions that require heavy (and expensive) IT maintenance.

Welcome to the Community

The real differentiator, though, is the community approach. Open source development is constantly taking place under the microscope of scrutiny from global communities of active, hands-on users and developers. These community members are able to identify problems and emerging functional needs, and developers and participating vendors respond quickly. Pain points -- whether functional needs in an application, or more low-level technical requirements -- are addressed in a fraction of the time required by traditional proprietary software.

Additionally, the open source world, as it turns out, is full of Mac users -- including no less a celebrity than Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system. A 33-33-33 workstation mix is a common ratio among many companies.

One consequence of the intersection of open source and Mac worlds, then, has been that newer open source offerings are not just Mac-friendly but are equally PC-friendly. They expect to live in a world where multiple platforms and systems interact and interconnect seamlessly. This result of the community approach is yet another advantage of open source, as proprietary offerings often favor either Macs or PCs.

Potential for Innovation

What's exciting is the potential of this approach to drill down into even more specialized demands of businesses. Currently, the "missing piece" of many Mac-friendly enterprise applications is vertical-specific functionalities; the open source community approach is equipped to fill this gap.

Specifically, the open source community dynamic allows end-users in every type of business to build powerful software solutions around commodity-level core building blocks, without having to be programmers themselves. The new functionality is then made available to the larger community, and other end-users or developers can refine or modify the offering as needed. Specialized service and solution providers can be an important part of this cycle as well. The current open source offerings are therefore just the tip of the iceberg for the potential of open source innovation for Mac users.

Collaboration of end-users, vendors, partners, developers and experts across every vertical business and hardware system has been integral to these solutions, and this approach promises a bright future for the open source/Mac relationship. The community has effectively drawn from its members of Mac and PC experts to develop business software that runs equally well on both systems at an affordable (free) cost.

Moreover, the flexibility offered by these solutions provides end-users with the ability to choose which functionalities they want without becoming bogged down in the complexity of -- or getting locked into -- many proprietary offerings. While these proprietary vendors scramble to compete, churning out Mac-friendly enterprise applications, the open source community continues to fine-tune existing solutions and innovate new functionalities to better serve businesses running wholly or partly on Macs.

Ned Lilly is president and CEO of xTuple, a provider of open source ERP solutions.

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