The next computer you buy could be just that.

    Those poor, sentimental romantics. That's how I used to characterize the half-dozen or so e-mails I receive annually inquiring about the feasibility of running a financial advisory business using Apple computers. "Apple designs great computers," I'd tell them, "and the operating system is rock solid, but there's one fact you cannot ignore: There is no, and I mean no, professional desktop financial planning software commercially available for the Mac operating system."
    After bursting their bubble, I'd rarely hear back from these poor souls, but every now and then someone, obviously a glutton for punishment, would come back for more: "What about Virtual PC?" they'd ask.
I'd patiently explain that Virtual PC, (a $249 Microsoft software program with Windows XP Pro, $219 with Windows XP Home), which creates a Windows partition on a Mac hard drive, really isn't the answer. Virtual PC is a software program designed to run the occasional Windows program on a Mac machine. It can be slow, and it is prone to all of the Windows flaws, viruses, etc. If you are going to run primarily Windows-based programs, you are much better off with a Windows computer; purchasing a Mac and then using it extensively to run Windows software defeats the whole purpose of purchasing a Mac in the first place.
    I found it quite ironic that I, who knows better than anyone that the financial planning world is virtually 100% Windows-based, recently found myself asking: "What if I was determined to create a business relying solely on an Apple computer?" Could it be done? I decided to find out, and along the way I made some interesting discoveries.
    "Is your Web site compatible with browsers other than Internet Explorer?" I asked the representative of a major financial planning software firm. "What, you mean like Firefox? she said. "I think it is."
    "What about Safari?" I asked. "Safari?" she said. "What's that?" (Safari, for the uninitiated, is the Web browser that comes bundled with the Mac operating system). So began my quixotic quest to determine whether or not a Mac could find happiness in the financial planning workplace.

Introducing The Mac Mini
    Why the sudden interest in Apple? Simple: the Mac mini. From the moment I first laid eyes upon it, I realized that this computer was a marvel of engineering. Imagine holding a desktop computer in the palm of your hand (I am right now). This little gizmo may change the way we think about computers. It is already changing the way some people buy computers. It may mark the beginning of drastic shift in computer design.
    At six inches square, two inches tall and weighing in at less than three pounds, the Mac mini is the most impressive looking desktop computer I've ever seen. The white reflective top looks good anywhere; the anodized aluminum sides are strong yet stylish; there's a non slip coating on the bottom so it will stay where you put it.
    The mini body houses a real, full featured computer, but surprisingly, it is the least expensive Mac computer ever, with prices starting at $499.00 That price does not include a mouse, keyboard or monitor; but don't worry; the Mac mini is designed to work with the ones you already own.
    The mini uses Apple's G4 processor, not the newer G5, but mine, configured with extra RAM, zipped through all common tasks. The base model includes a 1.25 GHz processor, 256 MB of RAM, a 40 GB hard drive, a built-in speaker and a graphics card with 32 MG of DDR memory. Also included are a modem, Ethernet port, USB ports, a FireWire port, support for both DVI and VGA video and a combo DVD player/CD burner. For an additional $100 you can upgrade to a 1.42GHz processor and an 80 GB hard drive. Doubling the RAM to 512 MB (highly recommended) costs $75.00. If you want a DVD burner instead of the combo drive, add $100 to the price, and you can purchase both Bluetooth and 802.11g wireless networking for $99.00 more. At a minimum, I'd probably want the $599 model with 512MB of RAM, for a "true" entry-level price of $674.00.
    The system comes bundled with iLife, Apple's excellent A/V software for organizing music and photos. It is great for creating music, movies, and CD's/DVD's. It also comes with Apple Works for basic word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, drawing and painting, a full version of Quicken, iChat (for video conferencing), iCal (a nice calendar program), an address book, an e-mail program and the Safari web browser.
    There are potentially some additional costs. For example, you'll need a set of speakers, because the built-in speaker is weak. If you don't have an old set of PC speakers, figure at least $20 to $40 for a serviceable pair.
    I tested my mini with Apple's wireless keyboard (which is magnificent) and mouse. You can use your existing USB keyboard and mouse, but if you do you'll occupy the mini's 2 USB ports, so you'll need a hub, which adds additional USB ports. The Apple store sells one online for $29.99, but they are available online for under $20.00.

Making A Case For Mac
    OK, so the Mac mini is wonderfully designed and a relative bargain, but why buy one? Well, for one thing, the Mac operating system, Panther, is rock solid. It is well designed, intuitive and stable. Most importantly, it is secure. To the best on my knowledge, the current Mac operating system has never been successfully attacked by a virus, and it is spyware free. The operating system includes FireVault, which allows the user to encrypt their home directory, so the data will be protected even if their computer is stolen.

The Mac mini is the quietest computer I've ever used. Most of the time, it runs absolutely silently. The only time I noticed a sound was when I used the optical drive.

For common computing tasks, such as surfing the web, e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, Apple is as good as, if not better than, comparable Windows programs. Financial professionals, who must maintain compatibility with a Windows-based world, will most likely have to purchase Microsoft Office for Mac, however.

Mac is clearly superior to Windows for desktop publishing. (It's no coincidence that Apple has always sold well in the publishing industry). A new program, iWorks, available for $79.00, includes Pages, a Word Processing/Desktop Publisher, and Keynote 2, a presentation program with strong graphic capabilities.
    iDisk, part of the iMac service ($99.00 per year for e-mail and storage) offers up to 250 MB of seamless online storage, which the user can access from anywhere. Storage can be upped to $1 GB for an additional $49.00 annually. iDisk data can be shared with others over the Internet if desired.

Apple really shines, however, when it comes to A/V. My wife recently tried to create a slide show from photos, set it to music and transfer the project to a CD using the software that came with her Windows PC. It literally took her days to figure everything out, perfect the show and burn the disk. With the Mac mini, a similar project was accomplished in a matter of minutes.

If you or your firm performs any of the above tasks regularly you are a candidate for a Mac mini; not as a replacement for your existing system, but as an accessory to it. For example, if you produce your own newsletter, or if you occasionally produce videos for clients, those functions alone justify the purchase of a mini. If you currently have a few good clients who use Mac and you'd like to video conference with them, that alone might justify the cost of a mini. If you are thinking about adding a second or third home computer, the Mac mini would make an excellent choice. But there is more.

While I'm not suggesting that anyone other than a Mac fanatic try this (not yet, anyway), it is finally possible to run a Mac-based practice. While it is still true that no desktop software exists for financial advisors today, plenty of Web-based programs are available, and most (but not all) of them will work with a Mac. I know, because I recently sampled a number of Web sites using my Mac mini test unit. Here's what I found.

First, I visited the Schwab Institutional Web site and launched their Java applet, which provides quotes, positions, online trading, etc. The site clearly states that Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher is required, but I found that the application worked fine during my brief visit using Safari, although the applet loads noticeably slower than it does on a Windows machine. Firefox for Mac had problems with this site, however.

I was not able to test the TD Waterhouse interface, since I don't have a log-in, however Waterhouse spokesperson Brian Stimpfl told me that they had checked their institutional site's compatibility with Safari last year, and that it worked OK. They have not tested Firefox yet, although Stimpfl indicated that they would do so if their advisors requested it.

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