Much has been made of Mac OS X and Linux in the past year, particularly the idea that Linux is set to displace the Mac OS as the "second" desktop operating system. The usual suspects are once more predicting Apple's demise.

Jason Walsh argues to the contrary.

Analyst Dan Kuznetsky told Macworld publisher IDG that Linux has already overtaken the Mac, and that it did so last year: "Linux captured the number-two spot as desktop operating system in 2003". Kuznetsky went on to estimate that "Linux will have six per cent of the desktop market in terms of units".

This kind of news is scary stuff for Mac loyalists. Or is it?

Even the Mac's core market in the creative and publishing industries is under attack from the Finnish wündersystem - Adobe has started experimenting with the open-source operating system. In 1999 the California-based design software company tried out a beta version of its little-known page-layout application Framemaker. A few dogs barked. No-one cared. Corel then released versions of CorelDraw and PhotoPaint. The Linux-world paid attention, but no-one else gave a hoot - neither application is actually important in the real world anymore.

Then in early-November 2004 things got worse for everyone. Also in November, Adobe began looking at Linux again also, hiring Linux programmers and joining a prominent Linux consortium, even going so far as to become involved in efforts to improve the operating system.

There are two major flaws in the latest theory of the Mac's impending doom: first, it underestimates the amount of machines that ship with Linux but are wiped clean and given a fresh install of Microsoft Windows. Second, the Mac and Linux are not in competition in quite the same way that the Mac and Windows, or even Linux and Windows are.

The numbers don't add up

In many parts of the world, such as China, Russian and Latin America, software piracy is particularly rife. In these countries people looking for hooky software don't have to trawl dubious FTP servers and peer-to-peer networks - they can buy official-looking pirate software in markets and shops, complete with printed covers and manuals, all for a fraction of the price of legitimate software.

In these countries, many PCs are sold with Linux as the operating system in order to keep costs down, but it's only a matter of a few pounds to slap a dodgy copy of Windows on in favour of Linux. Gartner Group analyst Annette Jump estimates that "on 90 to 95 per cent of these PCs, a pirated version of Microsoft Windows is installed within the first few days".

The availability of ultra-cheap Linux PCs in Europe and the US, such as the Walmart $199 PC, suggests that a similar occurrence may be happening outside of these locations, especially when you consider that many people are buying this kind of machine as an inexpensive second system. Most computer-users don't read computer magazines or Web sites, aren't interested in anything as arcane as an operating-system, and simply don't want to learn anything new. In these situations it's easier just to install a copy of Windows on your second PC than try to learn the Linux way.

Whether Microsoft or anyone else wants to admit it, software piracy has played a role in all of the major applications becoming the standards that they are, from Windows through Microsoft Office to Adobe Photoshop. Even in relatively affluent countries, are all of those art and design students really paying for Photoshop?

Hewlett-Packard, the second biggest PC manufacturer in the US shipped an estimated 200,000 PCs pre-loaded with Linux in the third-quarter of 2004. HP are now happily predicting that "desktop Linux will outship [sic] Mac OS in 2004, though it won't come anywhere near Windows' market share". Strong words, but they obscure the obvious fact that Linux desktop sales are still a tiny minority of HP's own sales, never mind the overall PC market.

Let's look as some figures from the US:

The most reliable statistics available by November 2004 estimated that 1.3 per cent of all PCs would be running Linux by the end of the year, a figure that is below Apple's market share (about 2.3 per cent) and significantly smaller that the Apple installed base, which is huge.

IDC figures released in 2001 touted Apple as having "a 34.9 per cent percent share of the laptop installed base against 14.3 per cent for Dell and 10.8 per cent for Toshiba." Installed base figures include recent sales, as well as models that are no longer produced but estimated to be still in use. No more recent installed base figures seem to be available, but Apple's machines have a life-span estimated to be two, to two-and-a-half times that of Windows machines, and the market-share remains buoyant. 2003 saw iBooks and PowerBooks capture a market-share in the laptop market of around 7 per cent.

Meanwhile, in the massive US K12 education (primary and early secondary) sector Apple has 33 per cent of the installed base and 21 per cent of the current market share.

The divergence between Apple's large share in key markets and relatively small current market-share can be explained by the massive sales of white-box corporate desktop machines - a market Apple simply doesn't even attempt to compete in. In Apple's key areas - publishing, design, and audio and video production, market share is likely to be in the region of 80 per cent or higher, but all of these figures will never tell the true story.

Linux versus what?

Mac OS X and Linux have some startling similarities. Not only are implementations of the UNIX standard, they also share significant similarities in terms of the underlying codebase. Any improvements made to the base UNIX code, be that BSD, SYSV/R4 or Linux, are easily implemented in Mac OS X.

In terms of user software, the situation is also a positive one. The Mac has seen several popular open-source applications. The Safari and Omniweb web browsers are both based on the open-source Konqueror, while Firefox, based on Mozilla, has won plaudits from users.

Those with a degree of technical nous have discovered that OpenOffice makes a suitable drop-in replacement for Microsoft's expensive Office bloat-fest. At present it does require the UNIX window-server X11 to be installed, but a truly Mac-native version is on the way.

Users who have installed X11 can also take advantage of all of the standard UNIX and Linux applications through the open-source Fink project.

Meanwhile, in the server room, Apple's XServe has been a quiet success and key applications include the Apache webserver and Darwin Streaming Server - both open-source efforts, the latter originating at Apple.

These are just a few examples of how the Mac has benefits in terms of software from the work emanating from the Linux camp. Hopefully Mac-developers will continue to pay this back by releasing their own open-source software.

One area where the Mac-Linux synergy is amazingly strong is, once again, in the area of laptops. Go to any geek-laden event and you'll see plenty of iBooks and PowerBooks, particularly the neat little 12-inch models. Why has a sector of the PC market which spent years deriding the Mac taken to the Apple laptops with such abandon?

Several reasons. First, Mac OS X. Be clear about this: without Apple's own UNIX, these people would still be sneering at Macs as being too easy to use or "computers for the brain damaged". Mac OS X allows the propellerhead fraternity to run all of their favourite curiously named command-line-based software, from Groff to Troff and back again, without having to give up the best of the commercial software world.

Second, Windows laptops are terrible and Linux ones worse. With a few notable exceptions from the likes of IBM and Sony, x86-based laptops have an appalling build quality. Forget the expensive Vaios and Thinkpads, most PC laptops are Dell clunkers or near no-brand efforts from PC World.

Desktop PCs are a bit like Internet pornography - popular so long as no-one can see what you're doing. In some sense at least, that beige box your neighbour has in his living-room is a the IT equivalent of Bridget Jones's big knickers. Laptops are another matter altogether. Apple sold plenty of iMacs on looks alone. With laptops, the effect is magnified. Few people want to be seen with a massive and noisy laptop that shuts down after a short period of use. Or a Ferrari-red Acer, surely a warning sign of oncoming penile dementia.

It probably says terrible things about our increasingly bourgeois outlook, and certainly puts a new spin on Marx's theory of commodity fetishism, but so long as vanity contributes to Mac sales we all have reason to be happy.

There are also technical problems in Intel-world. The battery life is appalling; if you get two hours out of that Toshiba Satellite, you should count yourself lucky.

Linux users get particularly short shrift in laptops. To squeeze the PC-gubbins into a relatively small area, the manufacturers cut a lot of corners, using parts that are often unsupported (or at best partially supported) in Linux. Jonathan Brennan got caught out on this front:

"I bought a laptop and wanted to install Linux on it, but I can't because the fans won't stop running at any point and none of the power-management features work in Linux. The result is that I got about one hour of use in Linux, so I had to switch back to Windows. To add insult to injury, Linux won't recognise the video-card properly so it had a poor resolution."

Would he consider a PowerBook or iBook?

"I wouldn't have ever considered an Apple Mac in the past. I will the next time, but after dropping a grand and a half on this bucket of crap I won't be in the market for a new computer for a while."

None of which is to suggest that Linux-happy laptops don't exist, just that buying one requires a degree of work and technical knowledge.

The idea of the Mac losing its core market to Linux is also something of a non-starter. Jupiter group analyst Michael Gartenberg recently told CNet that being inexpensive isn't much of a bonus in the design-world:

"I would see it being very difficult to sell those applications. At the low-end side, there are simply too many free apps with similar functionality, and at the high-end side, the market is very small. People willing to pay $500 to $800 for an application usually have no problem running the Mac OS or Windows."

At the end of the day the entire concept of the Mac versus PC platform war is a faulty one - an 80s hangover from the days of the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga which should have gone away with Kajagoogoo. The fact remains that a computer - PC or Mac - is a tool, not a lifestyle choice or badge of honour and the technical superiority of the Mac OS combined with its increasingly close ties to the world of open-source software means that if your tool of choice happens to be a Mac, you have a bright future to look forward to.

The next time an IT trends-analyst, of either the would-be or overpaid-corporate variety, tells you that Linux means the death of the Mac, tell them that what Linux really means for the Mac is more choice, more software and more users.