Apple Hits the Windows Wall

by Paul Rubens

OS Roundup: Windows 7 has been out for barely two weeks, and its market share already rivals that of Mac OS X, despite years of marketing and strategizing on Apple's part. Does Windows stand a chance of being dethroned?

The latest desktop operating system market figures, which show Windows 7 commanding an almost 4 percent market share, must have Apple banging its head in frustration.

Talk about galling: Apple has been marketing and designing its pants off for years to pick up 5 percent or so of the market, and it convinced itself and its fans that it had the momentum behind it. The world, it wanted to believe, was finally coming around to the Mac way of thinking.

That bump you just heard was the sound of Apple falling rapidly back down to earth, with the realization that Windows 7, in a little more than two weeks — and with little more in the way of promotion than a few laughable house parties — has already picked up pretty much the same market share as OS X.

That's not to say OS X is no good: It certainly has its moments — especially if you want to run Dev-Team's Pwnage tool to jailbreak your iPhone. So too have the many Linux alternatives, like Ubuntu 9.10, which was released last week (although a poll over at the Ubuntu forums suggests that about a fifth of upgraders from the previous version are running into insurmountable difficulties).

And it's not to say that Windows 7 is that great either. It's certainly a step up from Vista, but not a very big one. Windows 7 is also much more expensive than OS X, and infinitely more expensive than Ubuntu, or any other Linux alternative for that matter.

For the moment, however, Microsoft is in an unassailable position. And there is nothing that Apple with its superior marketing and design, or Linux with its unbeatable value proposition, can do about it. 5 percent or 6 percent is all Apple can wish for, and Linux about 1 percent.

It's interesting to contrast this with the high-end server market, where things are a little different. For one thing the hardware here is more of a differentiator, whereas on the desktop the hardware is basically the same. (OK, so Apple's hardware is white and shiny, but beneath the veneer it's all Intel inside.)

Last month, the folks at HP were busy celebrating the tenth anniversary of the launch of the HP Superdome, the top-of-the-line, all bells and whistles Integrity server launched at the end of the last millennium. Most Superdomes run HP UX, HP's very own UNIX, so it's worth considering whether the longevity of the Superdome is down to the popularity of HP UX.

That's not the impression HP gives out, at least according to Ben Rockwood, one of a number of bloggers HP invited to Superdome's birthday celebration in Cupertino. Rockwood says on the Cuddletech blog:

In the enterprise space in which [HP] see themselves as relevant, OS wars don't exist. CFO's, they think, make the decisions and it's not about whether Solaris is better than HP-UX or AIX but whether the hardware provides value and the supplier offers excellent service ... the OS is, in that case, simply a glue layer. At least, that's the vibe they put off

If Apple, Canonical or any other Linux maker wants to make a serious dent in Microsoft's desktop market share according to this logic, then they have to make the OS irrelevant. The battle must be about hardware.

Linux had a chance to do this in the netbook market, but with Windows 7 Microsoft has pretty much slammed closed this window of opportunity. And although some Mac fans have had success running OS X on netbooks, the next version of OS X will reportedly not run on Atom processors, so Apple is effectively writing itself out of that market too.

As a hardware maker at heart Apple does have a chance to compete with the big Wintel manufacturers over conventional desktop and laptops machines, but here's the rub: Can it provide "value and excellent service?"

Sadly for Apple, the idea is ludicrous. The truth is Apple hardware may have many qualities, but good value isn't one of them. Indeed, Apple seems to pride itself on being more expensive, and providing less bang per buck, than any other manufacturer in the known universe. And excellent service? It's OK if you don't mind being kept in the dark about anything the company is planning for the future, but certainly nothing to compensate for the overpriced hardware.

That means that whichever way you look at it, Microsoft is going to be top dog on the desktop for some time to come yet.

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.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Nov 3rd 2009
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