By Karen Axelton

A new initiative by Apple Inc. could be good news for small businesses that would like to use Apple products—but bad news for independent businesses that currently consult to business users of Apple products.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple is hiring engineers in several of its U.S. retail stores to set up Apple-based computer systems for small businesses. The company posted job openings on its Web site.

The move would be a switch for Apple, which has up to now focused on consumers and on creative businesses such as graphic designers or photographers.

But as the iPhone and iPad grow more popular among all kinds of users, Apple is seizing on the trend to sell more business users on Macintosh computers and servers.

The small business initiative will target small, local companies that will be served by Apple’s roughly 300 retail stores, sources at Apple told the Journal.

Right now, every Apple store has one salesperson who focuses on local businesses, but the company is working to create specialized small business teams.

As someone who uses both a Mac and a PC, I’m excited about the move to provide more business support. I love my Mac, but few of my business colleagues use them. And a weak point for Apple that the article points out (and with which I agree) is that the retail store staff doesn’t provide the kind of support businesses typically expect. (From my experience, their approach is more “Hmmm. What do YOU think is wrong with your computer?”) Teaching users how to fix their own problems may pay off in the long run, but busy business owners don’t always have time for this kind of approach and would rather pay someone else to handle the issue or set up the system.

That’s where the downside of Apple’s move comes in. Typically, business owners who need more help than the Apple Store can give are referred to independent IT consultants specializing in Macs. Many of those consultants might have reason to worry if Apple develops its own strong network of in-house business assistance. On the other hand, if the move simply creates more demand for Apple’s computers, maybe there will still be plenty of work to go around.