Historically, Macs and the business side of running a small design business aren't often associated with each other. Yet with smaller firms being one of the markets Apple is targeting with Mac OS X Leopard Server, it's easy to see the OS taking care of your administrative duites as well as your creative work.

Leopard Server's new Server Preferences interface is designed primarily for small businesses, which often need some of the features of a server but don't have the budget for dedicated hardware or an IT specialist. Apple has also been targeting small businesses with a special section of its Web site and with special events in its retail stores to educate users and business owners about how Mac OS X can be used.

In many ways, Mac OS X is an ideal platform for small businesses and offices. It is easy to install and set up, often requires little technical support to maintain, and remains free of many of the virus and malware problems that plague Windows PCs. All of this should be appealing for a business with anywhere from a handful to a few dozen employees that cannot afford full-time IT staff.

Alykhan Jetha, CEO of Marketcircle, which develops business apps for Mac OS X, described the additional support needed to maintain Windows PCs as being the biggest advantage to running a business on Macs. Many business owners are "just fed up" with issues like viruses and crashes that reduce productivity and increase ownership costs, he said. Jetha also pointed out that about 50% of his new customers are switchers -- businesses that once used Windows.

Marketcircle isn't alone: Many other business software developers are seeing stronger demand for Mac products. Kevin Ford, founder and CEO of Parliant, a company that develops telephony solutions for Mac OS X, has described a "significant ramp up to the number of businesses" purchasing Parliant's products. He also described the Mac's overall total cost of ownership (TCO) as its primary advantage for small business, both because of the lower overall cost to support Macs and because businesses can often "hang on to their Macs longer."

While lower TCO and fewer problems are advantages to Mac OS X for small businesses, they don't account for a recent surge in Macs as business machines. That can be attributed mostly to Apple's transition to Intel processors and the fact that its hardware can now run Windows applications for those times when a comparable Mac-related product isn't available. The ability to use Apple's Boot Camp or one of the other virtualization tools to run Windows applications also helps stagger transition costs as businesses buy and migrate to Mac hardware and software.

Beyond stability and freedom from viruses and spyware, Mac OS X offers small-business owners other advantages. Setting up sharing services under Mac OS X, for example, is a simple matter of opening the Sharing panel in System Preferences. With just a few easy-to-understand clicks, you can share a Mac's Internet connection, printers, files (with other Macs or PCs) and even Web pages. The ease of setup isn't limited to Mac OS X. Apple's newest wireless networking hardware, the AirPort Extreme Base Station, actually provides the perfect small-office network solution. It too can share printers and/or an attached USB hard drive -- all the while providing wireless network/Internet access.

Easy setup and better security alone don't make any computer a solution for business. For that, you also need software. Perhaps the biggest misconception about the Mac in small business is that it is a computer for home users, educators and graphics/media design, and that there simply aren't any business tools available to Mac users. That might have been the case in the past, but that is certainly not true today. Business solutions for Mac OS X run the gamut from those that meet the needs of any company to those that serve specific niches such as retail, law offices and even medical/dental practices.

Finance tools

Accounting is probably the least likely business function to be associated with Apple and Mac OS X, yet there are a number of accounting software packages available for Mac-dominated businesses. For small businesses, there are the well-known QuickBooks and MYOB packages as well as the lesser-known MultiLedger and Payroll applications from CheckMark. For midsize and larger businesses that have outgrown smaller-scale accounting tools, there are AcctVantage and Connected Precision Accounting, which offer solutions tailored to a company's needs.

For individual consultants and freelancers, there is the excellent Billings 2 by Marketcircle. Billings makes it easy to track time spent on projects, record notes about client interactions and create visually stunning invoices -- should you decide your invoice should be visually stunning. For businesses looking for a similar solution that's designed for a staff of employees, try iBiz.

Managing contacts and calendars

While Mac OS X's Address Book and iCal may be good for companies with one or two people, a business with even a handful of staff members needs a solid solution for coordinating schedules and sharing contact information. Tools like Now Up to Date and Contact and Daylite offer this expanded ability. Daylite even allows you to integrate calendars and contacts into project management and lead development for increased productivity. SOHO Organizer is another high-powered option for managing contacts. If you only want a staff scheduling solution, there is the excellent xTime Planning by app4Mac.

Of course, no discussion of contact and calendar management for Mac OS X would be complete without mentioning Leopard Server, which will make it easy for small businesses to create a central contact and calendar server that seamlessly integrates with iCal, Address Book and Mail.

Project management

Having tools to track project status is crucial to any business, particularly as a company grows. There are a number of Mac OS X project management tools, including Daylite and other top-notch solutions such as FastTrack Schedule and xTime Project, both of which offer extensive feature sets and support for Microsoft Project files. There is also Project X, with its excellent interface and Mac-like feel, which make it a good tool for users new to project management software. Also offering a similar Mac-like feel: Omni Group's OmniPlan.

There are also plenty of tools for brainstorming and idea organization, including Omni Group's offerings, OmniGraffle and OmniOutline, as well Mindjet's Mind Manager and software from ConceptDraw. Along similar lines is SOHO Notes by Chronos, a tool that allows you to organize -- and sync to a variety of devices -- information as diverse as quick notes, pictures and multimedia files and Microsoft Office documents.

Telephony

Hands down two of the most powerful business tools for Mac OS X are Parliant's PhoneValet and PhoneHerald. PhoneValet turns a Mac into a powerful phone system, complete with voice mail, on-screen call notifications, phone trees and rules that can be used to divert calls or offer custom messages based on caller ID information or call time. PhoneValet can also log and/or record calls for you -- an especially useful tool if you offer any type of support services. Whether your company has one or two separate phone lines or a PBX-scale phone system, PhoneValet makes it easy to create a professional setup for incoming calls. Its companion, PhoneHerald, leverages Mac OS X's text-to-speech technology to allow companies to automate the process of making outbound calls for tasks such as confirming appointments or notifying people about changes or cancellations of meetings or events.

There are, of course, many more applications available that would be of use to companies large and small. But for smaller firms, the plethora of programs available -- coupled with the reliability and overall ease-of-use of the Mac OS X platform -- makes for a potent, and potentially winning, combination.