recently dubbed Apple Computer the "brand with the most global impact." But you'd never know it by looking at corporate desktops today.

Windows machines are the undisputed personal computers of choice for corporate IT, the biggest single market for PCs. Research conducted by analyst IDC underscores the fact: it ranked the maker of Macintosh machines No. 10 on its market-share list in 2004, two spots behind the Chinese company Lenovo Group -- and the list was prepared before Lenovo's planned acquisition of IBM's PC unit.

Yet despite significant efforts by Windows suppliers, Apple still remains a dominant player in vertical market segments such as publishing and digital media. And with the growing popularity of its low-cost Xserve Unix servers, Apple has an opportunity to compete head-to-head with industry leaders like Dell inside the data centre for general-purpose applications such as e-mail and Web serving.

Where's Mac?
Not surprisingly, according to research from New York-based TrendWatch, 83 per cent of graphic designers, 77 per cent of corporate design departments and 65 per cent of advertising agencies rely on Macintosh computers. And publishers also continue to depend on Apple's machines.

Kim Vichitrananda, a desktop support engineer for 800 PCs and 250 Macs at The Dallas Morning News, acknowledges that Windows has comparable applications for the publishing market. But, she says, "those applications don't run as robustly on Windows. They're not as fast or as seamless as on the Mac. We could not replace Macs for PCs."

At The Home Depot, senior engineer Bruce Covey evaluated only Mac options when he upgraded his video production equipment at the company's corporate headquarters in Atlanta. "We never considered the PC option, because it can't do what the Mac does in video production," he says.

Home Depot's video group standardised on dual-processor Mac G5 desktop machines with 2GB of RAM accessing 4TB of storage on Xserve RAID storage. Covey uses Apple's Final Cut Pro as his editing application.

His team also depends on outside freelance talent to produce nearly 300 10-to-45-minute videos every year on everything from CEO commentaries shot in the corporate studio to forklift-safety programs filmed in warehouses. Covey says the "lion's share" of freelance video talent "depend on Macs," so he does, too.

Mac is Unix
Apple's embrace of Unix in its Mac OS X operating system gave the company a big boost among scientists who need hefty processing capabilities. Bill Van Etten, who does genetic research at the University of Pittsburgh, attributes the Mac's star power among scientists to the computer's ease of use, a broad set of scientific applications available for the Mac and, most important, its Unix-based operating system.

"As a life-science researcher, I simply have no use for an operating system that isn't Unix," says Van Etten.

In fact, OS X isn't just Unix but, with the exception of its user-interface and management tools code, it's open-source Unix. (The source code is located at Apple integrates and specifically tunes its hardware for an additional 80 open-source projects, such as Apache, MySQL and JBoss for the Mac.

The Unix application software available for Macs is another benefit touted by users. "There are a ton of Unix apps designed for research," says Ben Hanes, senior systems analyst at Children's Hospital of Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), which is one of the top 10 recipients of research grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Van Etten acknowledges that "it is technically possible to get something for a Unix environment to run on Windows. [And] these applications might work sometimes, but it's slow, awkward and problematic."

At the Broad Institute for bioscience research in Cambridge, Mass., Stan Diamond, team leader for desktop support, says 95 per cent of the servers in the institute's data centre are Unix-based. About 20 per cent of those are Macs.

It's doubtful whether Oracle would have decided to port its Oracle 10g database to the Mac if the platform didn't have a Unix core. "We see value in OS X," says Sanjay Sadhu, director of worldwide alliances and channels at the database giant. "It's a great new enhancement." He adds that Oracle hopes to exploit Apple's strong position in the sciences and in creative and education markets. In fact, Oracle has installed Xserves in its data centre to run its Oracle Collaboration Suite for e-mail, voice mail and calendaring for 4,000 employees.

And Oracle is probably saving money doing so. Apple's dirt-cheap dual-processor Xserve competes favourably against Dell's PowerEdge 1850. The latter, loaded with dual 2.8-GHz Intel Xeon processors and 2GB of memory with 600GB of SCSI-based storage and a 25-user Windows license, rang up at $12,717 last month on Dell's Web site. An Xserve with two 2.3-GHz PowerPC G5 processors, 2GB of RAM, 580GB of ATA storage and unlimited OS X clients is a pittance in comparison, at $6,299.

Even running Linux, the Xserves are cheaper. And that's part of the reason the University of Pittsburgh's Van Etten, a Linux fan, opted for Xserves in his 120-node server cluster. The Mac is suddenly and uncharacteristically a low-cost option for IT shops.

A safer option
At Genentech Inc., a multibillion-dollar biotechnology firm in South San Francisco, Mark Jeffries oversees nearly 2,500 Macs. The senior systems specialist says the OS X machines are used "for various purposes," from scientists doing pure research to executives toying with spreadsheets.

According to Jeffries, the Mac's place in the market today is the result in large measure to Windows-centric IT shops that "have always been trying to find some reason to get rid of Macs." But he doesn't believe that the Mac is destined to remain locked in a few vertical segments, because of recent shifts in the technology landscape.

First, as Web services applications replace client/server software, Windows dependencies in an application's business logic disappear, as does the requirement for Windows machines.

The second shift, says Jeffries, is malware. He remembers a virus that shut down operations at a couple of his company's competitors in 2003 because of their total dependency on Windows while Genentech's business continued unaffected. He says the company's top executives took note of that event, and it reaffirmed their commitment to the Mac. "The Mac is secure, if not bullet-proof," Jeffries says. That's because OS X was developed after the widespread adoption of the Internet, so Apple "designed it to be secure by default. Windows was designed for features, not security."

Across San Francisco Bay at CHORI, Hanes concurs. "Macs are safer," he says. "When we get a virus, it's because someone attached a Windows laptop to the network."

Hanes, who estimates that CHORI's hundreds of machines are evenly split between Macs and Windows, deploys Macs as his secure front line to the outside world. He has set up CHORI's mail and Web servers on OS X systems. Any malware, particularly mail-borne viruses, gets stopped there before reaching the network. "If it's touching the Internet, it's safer on a Mac," he concludes.

Most Mac technical support personnel argue that the machines are far simpler to manage than Windows boxes. For example, when Genentech went through a recent upgrade on both its Mac and Windows systems, one technician could completely upgrade six OS X machines per day, while on the Windows side, one person could complete only two or sometimes three PCs each day. And for the entire company, seven technicians handle nearly 2,500 Macintoshes.

Eighty percent of Digital Strata's business is Windows users. Dan Fischler, president of the IT consultancy, estimates that one tech support person can manage 50 to 75 Macs, whereas ideally, there should be one for every 20 to 25 Windows PCs.

That's because of the high level of integration between the hardware and the software in a Mac, suggests Gary Winterboer, IT support engineer at AeroVironment, an aerospace design firm. For example, Apple includes its Server Assistant tool, which sets up an Xserve machine with a single click. And the Server Admin tool lets users turn individual features on or off with a mouse click.

No one expects Macs to displace Windows as the desktop of choice for general-purpose computing. But Apple has deflected intense competition in its core vertical markets. And, for the first time, it's becoming a credible contender as an alternative for servers inside the data centre.