Hewlett-Packard is making a renewed push into the small business market. And so is Apple. Which is a better choice for a business that has dozens of employees, rather than thousands?

Hewlett-Packard is focusing more on small business these days. But Apple is too. Here’s a brief overview of what the two U.S. computer giants offer for businesses that may have dozens rather than thousands of employees.

Needless to say, the choice begins with the eternal quandary, PC or Mac? But putting this bigger religious question aside for a second, it is necessary to recognize one seismic shift that has occurred (and is occurring). Apple is bigger, more cash-rich than ever and its stores–which support small business–are everywhere. With that in mind, let’s consider what HP is trying to accomplish in the small-business market. And then look at Apple’s increasing focus on this segment.

Hewlett-Packard is America’s premier supplier of computers to midsize and big business. That didn’t happen overnight of course. It happened by getting expertise via acquisitions of Compaq and Electronic Data Systems (EDS), among other companies, and by handling IT for giant accounts like Procter & Gamble.

And now HP is trying to bring some of that big account goodness to small business, according to Curtis Hutcheson, U.S. Commercial Country manager, HP Personal Systems Group. For example, HP’s Elite series of products–to date targeted primarily at large corporate customers–are now being pitched aggressively to small business, which Hutcheson describes as an unmanaged IT environment with less than 500 seats.

Part of that pitch is convincing small businesses to buy HP’s EliteBook laptops, such as the rugged, 4-pound EliteBook 2560p that is equipped with Intel’s latest high-performance Sandy Bridge Core i5 and Core i7 processors. The 2560p is designed to meet rigorous military standards (MIL-STD-810G) for vibration, dust, humidity, altitude, and high temperature.

But good hardware is just a start. EliteBooks (such as the 8460p and 8560p) also offer a standard three-year warranty on many models–not the standard one year–with U.S.-based support manned by certified technicians, according to Hutcheson.

“We’ve changed our Elite support. The U.S. call center…will be complete by the end of the year and we’re ripping out the IVR (interactive voice response) and putting certified reps in who can talk about our elite products,” he said. And when HP partners sell an Elite product they will get an incentive to provide HP partner services with the product, said Hutcheson.

Because security can be neglected at small businesses, HP will also offer free encryption, so “they can lock down that product,” according to Hutcheson.

Overall, the “Elite experience” is centered on installation, support, and management of that PC, which is done via HP’s premium support offering or partner services.

So, what about Apple? For a small business purchasing, for example, MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs, Apple offers JointVenture. (Like HP’s EliteBooks, all Apple MacBooks are sturdy and built for speed: they’re made of aluminum and pack Intel’s Sandy Bridge chips.)

No need to go through a separate third-party VAR here. The Apple Store in Simi Valley, Calif., for example, is staffed to handle small-business accounts. To get started, it’s really just a matter of walking into the store and asking a staffer about some of the finer points of small business support and then setting up an account.

And it’s transparent. Pricing is up front: $499 per year for the first five systems–which includes iPhones and iPads–and $99 for each additional system. (Compare with AppleCare.)

Initially, Apple will transfer existing data–including e-mail, calendar, and address book–from a PC or Mac, and install any additional software purchased from the Apple Store. Then, they’ll activate the Joint Venture website for access to training and tech support. Training includes up to three two-hour sessions of training at the Apple Store for company employees.

Customers can speak to an Apple Genius over the phone (which typically isn’t possible). Geniuses are there, of course, to help solve computer problems. Apple will also run system diagnostics, update software, and loan out computers when a computer is sent in for repairs.

Another point to consider: Apple is vertically integrated, so there’s the convenience of a one-stop-shop for everything. That said, HP has a long history of supporting business and has accumulated valuable know-how over the years.

But when all is said and done, for small businesses it can often be a matter of which platform offers the best software applications or simply which platform is more familiar.

So, which is it, PC or Mac?

Image: HP SMB IT Survey, June 2011. (Credit: Hewlett-Packard/Wakefield Research)

Source: CNET