Sometimes, things aren't as they seem. Apple appears to have been doing splendidly over the past few years, with OS X expanding its market share quite dramatically. After almost disappearing off the face of the earth before the return of Steve Jobs, Apple's share of the end-user operating system market a few months ago was up to 10 percent, according to figures compiled by Net Applications. Linux was far behind on the 1 percent mark, while Microsoft's once-dominant position had deteriorated to the extent that it commanded a market share of "just" 88 percent.
Now that always struck me as a bit strange, sitting here in olde England. Having a cup of tea in Starbucks I see plenty of laptops running Windows, but not nearly as many Macs as I'd expect if those figures were accurate. One in 10 of the machines in the place? Not a chance!
Seems I'm not alone in noticing that Macs are most notable in many parts of the world by their non-presence: Since most Mac buyers are apparently in North America, and since much of the data that Net Applications uses comes from North America, Net Applications has changed the way it measures market share to take into account geographical variations. It turns out that Apple's actual market share has been greatly exaggerated.
The revised figures are a catastrophe for Apple. For the company's fanboys and girls, it's a case of red faces all round. Far from breaking into double digits, Apple's market share estimate has been slashed by more than 50 percent to well under 5 percent of the operating system market. Windows has shot up from the high 80s to over 93 percent of the market; Linux gets a heartening 18 percent boost, putting it safely over the 1 percent mark, with OS X firmly back in its sights.
Now, of course, one can discuss Net Applications' methodology endlessly and question the credibility of any organization that has to revise its figures by as much as 50 percent. But that's all rather missing the important point. The point is that America's purchasing patterns aren't necessarily the same as the rest of the world's. Here's another example of this phenomenon: It may seem like everybody loves and has an iPhone, but worldwide, its share is just 2 percent of the phone market. It's much more accurate to say that everyone actually loves a Nokia. Crazy, but true.
What all this means is that, from a global perspective, Apple is not nearly as significant as the black turtle-neck brigade may like to think. In many parts of the world, a computer system that offers good value for money is what's important. One that also looks nice and makes the owner feel good about him- or herself is a luxury many can't afford.
When it comes to server operating systems, the same thing applies. Perhaps doubly so. A major reason Linux will continue to gain market share in the data center is that it is less expensive than OS X, proprietary UNIXes and Windows. It's as simple as that. Steve Ballmer may try to convince you otherwise with arcane TCO calculations, but an increasingly large number of cost-conscious organizations and government departments around the world from Australia to France and from China to Brazil not to mention in the United States would beg to differ. Linux may not be pretty, but it sure is cheap, and it gets the job done. (Greater stability, security and flexibility are part of the reason that it's cheap, don't forget.)
But Linux and the open source movement in general shouldn't take it for granted that everything will go its way from here on in. Episodes like the recent one in which the co-founder of free Red Hat rebuild CentOS apparently "crawled into a hole" with the keys to the distro and control of its funds don't make it easier for Linux advocates to convince skeptics that open source operating systems are a business-like way to go.
And on the consumer side, it's not all doom and gloom for Apple. It may have had its market share estimate slashed in two, but what the United States wants today, the rest of the world wants a few years later. If OS X's global market share rises to 10 percent in the near future to be in line with its current U.S. market share, a shedload of Macs will have been sold from Helsinki in Finland to Wellington in New Zealand.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.