Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Making the Switch to Mac

Thinking about going the Macintosh route? Consider what former PC users have to say.

Rob Hyndman has used computers based on Microsoft operating systems since the days of MS/DOS. But 20 months ago, after the latest in a string of what he calls “Windows catastrophes” and the 24 hours of work it took him to restore his system afterwards, Hyndman made a technological u-turn.

The principal of Toronto-based Hyndman Law had already been researching Apple Inc.’s Macintosh line of computers to find out whether the software he needed would work on Macs. “One day,” he says, “faced with repairing another busted Windows installation, I migrated to the Mac.”

When Damien Fox first saw Macs in 1994, he was using a PC, a 486 Packard Bell. “I thought it was great,” he says. “Everybody else was using Macs and I didn’t understand why they urged me to switch. Then I saw.”

What Fox saw was WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) applied to word processors, a rarity outside of Apple computers at the time. Now, “surrounded by computers all the time,” the in-house counsel for Toronto’s Phoenix Geophysics Ltd. finds his passion for technology has waned. “You want something that just works for you,” he says.

Hyndman and Fox are just two of the lawyers who have challenged the widespread assumption that to do business, one must use computers that run Microsoft Windows. Are they simply poster children for Apple’s “Switch” marketing campaign, or harbingers of legal technology change to come?

Apple is targeting “switchers” like never before. The machines themselves are so pretty that Hyndman calls them “eye candy.” And the good looks haven’t adversely affected the quality of the hardware itself.

Jennifer Gabriel performs internal IT support for Ottawa’s Williams, McEnery, but there’s so little actual support to do that she spends more time spearheading new IT initiatives and staffing reception.

“Macs are notoriously long-lived,” she said. “I could count on one hand the number of times we’ve had to send a machine in for physical repair over the last five years.”

In fact, few technology companies can boast the number of evangelists who trumpet Apple offerings, yet Windows remains to business computers what the iPod has become among portable digital music players.

Historically, the most difficult hurdle was office productivity software, again dominated by Microsoft with its Office suite of applications. The issue is not the software – Word, Excel, and PowerPoint – but the document formats they produce: .doc, .xls, .ppt (with an “x” added to each in Office 2007).

To collaborate effectively, people still need to use these formats, so today’s major office suites all offer the ability to save Microsoft-friendly versions. On the Mac, suites include Apple’s iWork, the open-source NeoOffice (the Mac version of OpenOffice) and the online Google Docs.

And while a nemesis in the operating system market, Microsoft continues to develop and support Microsoft Office:Mac.

Willi Powell, Apple Canada’s Strategic Development Manager, endorses the Redmond, Washington company’s flagship Mac title. “Microsoft Office for Mac 2008 is a great product,” he says.

Arnaud Gabaudan, Microsoft Canada’s Marketing Manager for Office:Mac, outlines Microsoft’s investment in the Mac platform. “We have two different teams working on Office, one for Windows, one for Mac,” he says. “We currently have 160 developers on the Mac team, and we’re growing.”

If only the same could be said of popular software specific to the legal industry. Writing software for both Windows and Mac means maintaining two distinct development groups. Funding such efforts is feasible for the Microsofts of the world.

But smaller software shops that publish specialized titles usually focus their more limited resources on the Windows market. And since software, more than any other factor, influences how people choose computers, many computer buyers perceive the Mac platform as inadequate.

“It continues to be an uphill battle to get talented software designers to give the Mac a try,” says Snyder, adding, “There just is not a Mac equivalent for every Windows program.”

The small law firms Stephen Smith serves via his consultancy, Oakbridge Information Solutions, “are desperate to find stuff that works for them on the Mac platform,” he says. Case management, outside of few exceptions like the all-in-one practice management package Lawstream, is a particularly sore spot.

Law firms determined to hold onto their Macs have had to take Apple’s old “Think Different” marketing catchphrase literally. Some of them have found Project Center inside Microsoft Entourage, or Daylite, from Markham, Ontario-based Marketcircle Inc., even though such products are not specifically built for law practices.

“Some lawyers say ‘It doesn’t have everything that I need for a case management application, but it does have 95 percent and I can live with the five percent that it’s missing,’” explains Smith, who consults on Daylite among other products. “People who use Daylite in their practices are using projects to manage their cases. It’s just different wording.”

Others, like Williams, McEnery, must use Windows applications. Gabriel is leading her firm’s search for litigation software for ediscovery. “Litigation support software is only Windows-based,” she says. “We did try to find something Mac-based. We didn’t find anything.” The firm plans to test products on Intel Macs running a Windows environment.

When they adopt a Windows system, they will incur additional costs. Each lawyer using an older yet “notoriously long-lived” machine will need a newer Mac, as well as a separate “environment” in which to run Windows, plus a license of Windows itself, before running Windows software.

To add to the cost, Jeff Barrett, principal of computer consultancy MacMedics, warns people who run Windows on their Macs to install anti-virus software in the Windows environment.

Persistent Mac-inclined lawyers can also look to Hyndman’s success with online applications like the web-based billing and time-tracking tool Freshbooks. It’s part of his plan to move more of his business processes onto platform-agnostic web-based systems.

But the cloud isn’t a cure-all, as Peter Kappel found when he started to e-file with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. “On occasions when I emailed tech support with a problem, they told me ‘Oh, we have to go try that out on our Mac,’” he said.

A principal of Kappel Ludlow LLP, Kappel has used Macs since 1987. “In the Mac world, you can use slashes in file names,” he explains. “Apparently, that’s a no-no for the system.”

“Particularly in Canada, (government) tends to be Windows-focused,” he continues. “When they create their online systems, they aren’t always up-to-date on the Mac side.”

This lack of Mac-specific software development does have one upside. Fox calls it “security by obscurity” and it enables Gabriel to make a statement few IT professionals would dare utter: “We do not use anti-virus on the individual machines.”

“Viruses (like software) are written for a specific operating system,” she continued. “We may have viruses on our systems but it’s not going to affect our systems.”

“It’s like telling a joke in a foreign language. If you don’t know the language, you’re not going to get it.”

Barrett does recommend that Mac users install anti-virus protection if they’re “heavy-duty Word users with PC colleagues.” “The Mac doesn’t get infected,” he says, “but it can pass things along to others. With anti-virus software, you protect other people.”

Others follow Gabriel’s firm’s lead. “We don’t forward a lot of files,” she says. “Once infected files arrive here, viruses are dead in the water.”

Barrett sees plenty of Windows and Mac machines working side by side. He says there are challenges, but “these days, the Mac is pretty good at joining mixed networks. Sharing files really isn’t a problem.”

But historical negative perceptions of Mac/Windows connectivity persist. These aren’t the only arguments. Windows proponents claim Macs are more expensive; there is no commodity hardware; only creatives use Macs, not serious business people.

Even though the market for low-end computers continues strong, Smith says, “Apple will never make a $499 laptop – and I don’t want them to.” He claims that price comparisons between Macs and Windows-based computers with similar specifications yield insignificant price differences.

Yet “most lawyers can get by with commodity PC-type hardware,” Hyndman says. “Business tends to be concerned more about function than form. You don’t really need fast video cards. You don’t need a laptop keyboard that lights up at night. You don’t need a video camera built into the lid of your laptop.”

Hardware compatibility is not the problem it once was, but it can still rear its ugly head. (Author’s note: I had to buy a new printer and digital voice recorder when I bought my MacBook Pro.)

Old habits can also impede switchers. It took the tech-savvy Hyndman about a week to learn the Mac. “You have to change the way you think about using a computer,” he said.

Fox figures non-tech savvy lawyers are the ones who most need to switch and have the least difficulty doing so. “Often, the more computer experience you have, the more frustrating it can be,” Fox says.

That the Mac is suitable for law firms is beyond doubt, according to active online communities and blogs devoted to the subject (see sidebar). Smith knows this, but he cringes when he sees certain “Hello, I’m a Mac – and I’m a PC” ads on TV. Clever though they are, “Too many of those commercials promote the perception that the PC guy is the business guy, and the Mac guy isn’t a business guy,” he says.

“I don’t think they pay a lot of attention to the small business user,” says Hyndman. “I think they focus on people who are stylin’, and kids. It’s a fashion box.”

Ultimately, the one company that can do the most for business users of the Mac is Apple itself.

Windows users can transition more easily thanks to Intel processors that let Windows software run on Macs. If ever there were a legitimate competitor for Research In Motion’s Blackberry (but not yet in Canada – officially), it would be Apple’s it-gadget, the iPhone. And early in 2008, Steve Jobs announced the MacBook Air. At three pounds, this subnotebook is squarely aimed at business travelers looking to lighten their carry-on load.

Mac Resources

Curious about the Mac experience in law offices? Check out this sampling of online communities and blogs written by lawyers about that Mac experience.

This article originally published by CBA PracticeLink.