Business Machine

How Businesses Could Use Macs

It's all so easy to say, "Let's use Macs in business". But how do we go about doing it? Does it have to be expensive? How do we make it pay?

by: Bernard Teo

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Bernard Teo
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How Businesses Could Use Macs

You're in Business

Start with the server. No, we don't need an Xserve. Use an old iMac (even an old G3 350 MHz, so long as you can load at least 192 MB of RAM on it and run OS X passably).

There's a good reason for this. Everything you need can be found in a stock OS X 10.2.4 installation; or can be easily downloaded. Workhorses like Apache, MySQL, SendMail, etc. are faceless command-line applications. They work quite efficiently, given enough memory.

(You may, of course, afford to upgrade to an Xserve after you've grown rich killing off your competition. But that will be another story.)

Next, get broadband access from a provider who doesn't stop you from running a server. After that, you're in business.

If you've followed the discussion "Your Mac, a First-Class Citizen on the Internet", you'll know that people can find wherever you can plug in a phone line.

Stock Up on Support

With the server as anchor, you can run a gadzillion things:

A Corporate Web Site. Imagine that you can make your web site do all these things : Describe the purpose of your company, the services you provide, and the persons to contact.

Imagine further that you can successfully use the web site to engage your customers in a dialogue, either via a weblog or a mailing list where they can find a support group of other customers using your products.

Imagine further that people are more amenable to buying when they are engaged in a dialogue and you make it easy for them to buy your products directly from the site, paying you electronically, while subscribing to a calendar of your events, and reserving places in your training courses.

Imagine finally that all these transactions get posted in directly into your accounting system so that you can get a real-time feel for the state of your financial health. (Check out Luca Accounting).

Behind the Scenes

The web site is, of course, running off the built-in Apache web server. You could use commercial software like GoLive to manage the web pages because they do a very good job of keeping all the links updated when you make changes. Otherwise, you could use any text editor, of which BBEdit is best.

You could use Apple's free iApps to manage the capturing and cataloguing of digital media (iPhoto for photos and iTunes for music clips). Image editing is usually done in Photoshop; sound clips can be edited in Sound Studio for OS X, among others (check Version Tracker).

You can make promotional material using iMovie, while printed materials can be created using InDesign (which is a more than capable replacement for Quark) or Illustrator or Freehand. Presentations can be done using Keynote.

Budgeting and planning could be done using MS Office but the spreadsheet provided in AppleWorks is usually enough and they're often bundled into the Mac.

For research, the Safari browser is hard to beat. It's fast and the Google search box gives very relevant results. Let's say I want to segue next into more technical things. I can search Bartleby and check that "segue" means to transition smoothly and made sure I could pronounce it properly (oops, what if my PC doesn't have a sound card?).

Segueing into the Harder Stuff

When customers interact with the web site, opportunities exist to capture information which could be used to plan for better service. On they may need information which we could dig out from the database. So the link between the web pages and the database is very important.

MySQL is a free, fast, powerful, and scaleable database. It's quite easy to set up on OS X. The interaction between the web pages and the database can be programmed using half-a-dozen techniques - using PHP, Perl, Python or even AppleScript scripts or Java servlets - in any combination, even at the same time. At this level, things are infinitely tweak-able.

Using these tools, we could implement the order processing system, the stock system, the product delivery system, the payment system, and the accounting system.

The analysis of the data could be done using spreadsheets like Excel. The data can be pulled directly from the database. And simple copy-and-paste moves the resultant charts, graphs, and pivot tables into presentation packages like Keynote.

Finally, no business works alone. They have to inter-operate (e.g., between two businesses, between headquarters and regional offices, between head office and retail shops, between business and government agencies). OS X supports a concept known as web services, which has emerged to allow businesses to exchange data - without each having to know how the other works.

The Java platform is especially strong in web services, in the sense that lots of programming examples exist. Apple's adoption of Java has ensured that Mac-using companies will be able to inter-operate with other companies, so long as they follow Internet standards.

A Smooth Transition

So far, all these things could run on that single machine we're using as server. You may realise that there are two kinds of things we do on that server. One, where we work with ideas and try to communicate with words, images and other media.

The other deals with the innards - the database and programming and networking - and is usually the province of the techie.

But we can do them all on the same machine, while transitioning smoothly from one level to the other.

That's really something you can do very well on the Mac.

Designers, writers and other creative people work on OS X very much like they did on OS 7, 8, and 9. But OS X has a Terminal application, which gives access to the Unix command line (not the DOS command line, mind you; there's a difference). You don't have to use the if you don't want to, and Apple has hid it very well. But if you know what you're looking for, Terminal opens up a whole world of useful possibilities. More importantly, at both levels, things just work.

Growing the Business

Let's say, the business is growing and soon you have more people. You'll need to keep them talking via e-mail (or iChat) and it's time to turn on SendMail on OS X. Mailing lists and discussion groups can be managed by software like Mojo or MailMan. And calendars can be shared, just by turning on WebDav support on the Apache web server.

With more people, you can start to move some functions off the server and onto individual machines - e.g., the creation of web pages, the analysis of data, or the development of e-commerce applications can be done by different people.

Because of the Unix underpinnings in OS X, networking is excellent, and people can continue to put things on the server, wherever they are (even on the other side of the world), as though they were still working physically on it.

As development work moves off the server, you can make it run more server-type stuff to improve collaboration among the staff - e.g., an FTP (file sharing) server, or a CVS (Concurrent Version Control System) for the software developers.

So while more equipment needs to be purchased for the new people, e.g., PowerBooks or iBooks for the more mobile ones), the server could still keep up for a while longer. That's why you could start small and you don't need things like a temperature-, humidity-, or dust-controlled room with 24-hour airconditioning and raised-flooring.

And One More Thing. I forgot to mention that, if you put in an Airport card in the server, you could make it into a Base Station so that all other Airport-equipped machines (like the PowerBooks) could come together in a wireless network and share the Internet access. Neat and cheap.

Talk about Security

Which will trigger the word "firewall", which will trigger the word "WatchGuard" or "Check Point" in the PC world.

But we're cheap in the Mac world. There's a built-in firewall in every OS X equipped Mac. The Sharing Preferences Pane provides you with a very simplistic control. A US$25 shareware utility called BrickHouse offers a much wider range of controls, while retaining a Mac-like interface. And, for people who like to type a lot, you can use the Terminal application to get all the control you want. There are people who use the OS X firewall to defeat Microsoft's copy protection scheme. That should perk you up.

Finally, Disaster Recovery. It is a disaster if your server crashed or the place you work out from sank out of sight in an earthquake. For both of these scenarios, it is helpful if you can prepare an iBook or PowerBook with a similar configuration to what you have on the server. If you keep the data reasonably updated - you can automate this using Unix shell scripts and syncronise things over a network - you'll have a ready-to-use backup machine. In a disaster, move to any other site that has an Internet access. You'll soon be back on.

Circumstances forced us to find a way to make a fixed domain name work with a dynamic IP address. As a reward, we can move our server (or the clone) anywhere and the world will still beat a path to our door.

Oh, my... How You Have Grown

Of course, once you've grown so big, you can afford to buy an Xserve. Or start hiring an IT department and an IT manager and move to Linux or HP or Sun or IBM or Windows. But as my grandmother used to say, when you move up in the world, don't cast away that ladder. You may need it on the way down. The Mac Forever?



Unix Reference:

  • Mac OS X Unleashed - by J. Ray and W. Ray

Contact : Bernard Teo