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Think Different: Switching Your Office to Macintosh

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As a long-time Macintosh user—my first being a souped-up version of this machine I bought back in 1989—I’m frequently asked by individuals and small businesses if it makes sense to transition off of Microsoft’s Windows platform in favor of one of Apple’s Macintosh offerings. While there is typically a wide range of benefits associated with moving to Apple’s machines, my answer is usually “it depends.”

The benefits are obvious: Apple’s platforms are among some of the safest in the industry, owing primarily to their use of an open-source variant of Unix—a robust operating system created by Bell Labs in the 1970s and hardened by over 40 years of usage in high-availability, mission critical systems such as mainframe computers and application servers. Adding to the relative security of the Macintosh platform is the fact that Apple still has a relatively small market share on the desktop. Macintosh users simply aren’t a lucrative target for the world’s malware developers, who continue to focus their efforts on attacking the 90% of the world’s machines running Windows.

The tight integration that Apple has created across its product line—coupled with the premium builds of their devices—also make switching an attractive proposition. Users of Apple’s mobile devices have some of the highest customer satisfaction scores in any industry, and this “halo effect” is translating into a desire to have a better desktop computing experience.

There are potential expense savings as well.

A 2012 Gartner study indicated that Macintosh users generally had lower support and affiliated costs than their Windows counterparts, mirroring the findings of a similar survey conducted by the Enterprise Desktop Alliance in 2010. And while an entry-level Macintosh is still more expensive than an entry-level Windows machine, the price differential usually disappears—and can sometimes reverse—when comparing similarly equipped models (the savings can actually be substantial at the high end: one 2013 comparison found that a top-of-the-line Mac Pro was $2,000 cheaper than a similarly-equipped Windows clone). Finally, ensuring that your system is always up-to-date has become a no-cost affair for Apple customers, who can now upgrade to Apple’s latest operating systems for free (in response, Microsoft has hinted that Windows 10 may be a free upgrade for consumers currently using Windows 8).

Despite these benefits, making the call to change from a Windows PC to a Macintosh is a pretty big decision involving a commiserate amount of risk. There’s no guarantee that your existing software or hardware will work with your new machines, and any platform change usually involves unexpected complexity (like changes to operational procedures) and additional expense (like training). In other words, moving to Macintosh should be as well-researched a decision as switching custodians or purchasing a new accounting system. And the resulting implementation needs to be handled like any other project: deliberately planned, communicated, and executed.

That said, there probably hasn’t been a better time for Windows users to make the switch to Apple’s OS X. First, the rapid rise of cloud-based application development has effectively neutralized the advantage of running a specific desktop operating system: almost everything that runs in a browser—including a wide range of financial services products in categories as diverse as accounting, portfolio rebalancing, CRM, and financial planning—will typically work exactly the same whether you are using Microsoft Windows or Apple’s OS X (the easiest way to verify this is to try running your web applications in Google’s Chrome browser…if it works on Chrome for Windows it will work on Chrome for Mac—and will likely work just fine in Apple’s Safari browser as well).

Second, Microsoft continues to invest in Apple’s desktop platform, ensuring that documents created by Microsoft Office will look and function the same whether opened on a Windows PC or Mac (they’ve also created a version of Office for Apple’s popular iPad device, and recently took the unprecedented step of making this version of their widely used productivity software free to consumers). In addition, Microsoft has made it simple for you to determine in advance if your documents will work across platforms: all recent versions of Office include a “compatibility check” function which will alert you to most issues (thankfully, most documents will work without a hitch, the ones that don’t were typically created in older versions of Office or make rare use of Windows-proprietary technology such as ActiveX controls).

Finally, almost all of the remaining compatibility issues are rendered largely moot through the use of low-cost virtualization tools such as Parallels Inc.’s Desktop for Mac or VMware’s Fusion product. These solutions leverage powerful virtualization technologies—previously the exclusive domain of large data centers—allowing your Mac to run both OS X and Windows at the same time. In other words, the investments you’ve made in Windows-only software will likely continue to work on your new Macintosh, and any data that these programs generate will immediately be available to both operating systems. The 12-year-old me would have found this to be nothing short of magic.

So, where do you begin?

The first thing you’ll want to do is take an inventory of all of your mission-critical technology. Start with your browser-based solutions, including any vendor-purchased products as well as operational infrastructure provided to you by your custodian (Schwab’s Advisor Center or TD’s Veo platforms are examples of this). Ideally, the majority of your key systems will fall into this bucket, allowing you to make a transition to Macintosh with very few changes to your normal, everyday workflow.

Next, list out all of the installed desktop software you use. These can vary from general business tools like Microsoft Office to industry-specific installations like portfolio accounting software or trade order management systems. Don’t forget that your custodian’s infrastructure may also require Windows; Pershing is the biggest offender here with NetX360 but Schwab also requires Windows to run their Schwab Data Delivery application.

For all of the Windows-specific software you identify, your best bet is to check with your vendor to determine whether or not they offer a Macintosh version  (as with Microsoft Office) or a version that runs in the browser (this is becoming increasingly common as software vendors move to leverage the significant advantages that come from building software “in the cloud”). Otherwise, you’ll need to use one of the virtualization products I mentioned earlier to use them on your Apple machine, which can typically increase your costs.

Finally, make an inventory of all the peripheral hardware that you use in your office.

This can includes things like scanners, printers, copiers, or any other specialized hardware that attaches to your Windows machines. These items are generally the source of the biggest and most expensive conversion “gotchas,” so its important to verify that you can find the appropriate drivers that will allow your Macintosh to run these devices.

Taking the time to research your existing technology stack will give you a pretty good idea of the level of effort you’ll need to expend to make the switch, and will also help you determine whether or not it’s worth doing. It will also inform you of additional activities that may be required during your implementation, including making additional software or hardware purchases, changing your operational procedures and documentation, or training your staff.

Aside from that, the best advice is to follow normal industry best practices. Talk to other advisors who have made the switch, or hire a consultant. Also, be deliberate: test your implementation with one or two machines, record any learnings, and modify your project plan as a result. Finally, involve representatives from your entire staff. They will likely be excited by the proposed switch, and can provide you with valuable insights into their particular use cases that you might not have otherwise considered.

Ten years ago, moving your small financial services business away from Windows would have probably been a pretty good strategy for, well, getting your firm out of the financial services business. However, the rise of cloud computing, modern virtualization technologies, and a technology landscape dominated by mobile devices have all conspired to create an environment where Microsoft’s dominance in the desktop doesn’t really matter anymore. That’s not an indictment of Microsoft, it’s just a sign of the times.

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