Should Microsoft fear Apple's Macintosh? Maybe not quaking-in-your-boots scared, mind you, but Redmond should certainly be concerned.
I'll tell you why. Apple has grown smarter about how it competes with Microsoft. Clearly the underdog, Apple has to make moves that can be seen as both supportive of the Windows marketplace and good for Mac users at the same time.
The switch to Intel was just such a chess move. Intel hardware makes it easier for Microsoft to create applications for the Mac. It solves a performance problem Apple had. It creates a better experience for Intel-Mac owners because it better supports Windows applications. The CPU architecture also puts Mac and Windows hardware on an easy-to-understand, level playing field. Perhaps most significantly, though, all these advantages appeal to potentially millions of Mac-curious Windows users because it makes the Mac more familiar.
For the first time in its 23-year history, the Mac is finally able to move fluidly into and out of the world of Microsoft Windows and its applications – both in the workplace and at home. Microsoft's own Office suite plays a big role in that. Microsoft's commitment to Office 2008 for the Mac lends additional support.
But the untapped source for the Mac is software designed for Windows. VMware is offering a public beta of its Fusion virtualization product for the Mac; the final release is due this summer. In the meantime, it's the Parallels Desktop software that has been truly transformational for the Mac.
Parallels isn't just an easy-to-use virtualization utility for running Windows on the Mac. The company's Coherence feature lets Windows apps run in an all but invisible Windows instance on your Mac. They look for all the world like they're running on your Mac, not in Windows. Parallels also makes it easy to switch back and forth between a full-screen version of Windows and your full-screen Mac. And Windows XP runs flawlessly on the Mac in Parallels. (Parallels also supports Vista, but not the Aero interface, yet.)
For people who haven't tried it recently, the most surprising thing about the Mac in 2007 is that software is simply not a problem. Most average Windows users have no idea how rich a software base the Mac has grown in recent years. With convenient access to Windows applications, as well as access to an intriguing, growing market of Mac-specific software, finding great software that runs on the Mac is easier than ever before.
That insidious Macintosh
OK, so full disclosure: I am a recent Mac convert. But before you chalk me up as an Apple-eyed Mac fanboy, I'm not your average Windows-to-Mac switcher. No one knows better than me (well, maybe Microsoft's accountants) how firm a grip on the computer industry Microsoft has. As a Windows reviewer since almost the beginning of Windows (my first tests were of Windows 2.11), I have no illusions about Microsoft's market lock.
If the Mac or any other desktop OS were to truly put a dent in Microsoft's desktop market share, it would take 15 years for Windows to "die." And that's assuming Microsoft stood still and did nothing. In other words, it ain't gonna happen.
I also don't hate Microsoft. I'm not a fanatic. I'm just someone who recognizes a good thing when he sees it. I undertook a simple three-month trial of the Mac last autumn, with no intention of sticking around, and realized four months later that I wasn't going back.
But here's the kicker: I am very definitely not alone. A lot of people who were previously confirmed Windows users have given the Mac a try over the last year. Windows Vista is the most ambitious version of Windows since Windows 95, but it's far less compelling than Windows 95 was. Vista isn't a bad product; it's just not a great one. After six years of waiting, it was time for something significantly better. We didn't get it.
Because I made the switch recently, and did so publicly, I've received hundreds of messages from readers (as well as readers of my personal newsletter, Scot's Newsletter) informing me that they, too, switched to the Mac recently. Many are IT people. Some confess that they manage Windows users by day, and run Macs at home. Others tell me that they've switched in the office, and it's no big deal. The all-but-universal experience is that the transition was much easier than expected, and that using the Mac has made switchers more productive.
What's especially intriguing to me is that many IT managers have reported that execs of all stripes are switching to the Mac at their companies. I've seen the same phenomenon. At my company, three very highly placed execs have used Macs for many years. The vast majority of people have used Windows. Over the course of the last year, however, several new Mac users have appeared, including three in my area of the company. Mac users are beginning to come out of the woodwork. And the word is spreading that it's OK to do that.
So, while I don't think Microsoft has anything to fear in the market share department, when it comes to mind share, it has a lot to lose. The Mac is experiencing a renaissance. It's about Intel inside. It's about Unix at the core. It's about virtualization technology. It's about the surprising availability of software. It's about a superior operating system, and attractive hardware. It's about serious buzz.
People are talking about the Mac throughout the industry. Admit it: Whether you love it or hate it, you're talking about the Mac at the water cooler. Many IT pros tend to laugh up their sleeves about how expensive and eccentric Macs are. But they're still talking. It's one of the top ten technology stories of the year.
There are three essential truths that I have come to believe about Macs:
1. The mythology surrounding the Mac isn't true. It's not impervious to problems. Like any computer, a Mac can really come apart on you in a bad way. I've seen it happen.
2. When Macs go bad, the conventional wisdom is that they're harder to fix than Windows machines. I used to believe that myself. It may have been true under pre-OS X versions of the Mac OS, but I no longer find that to be the case. As a relative Mac newbie, I've had no trouble figuring out Mac problems – and that includes a couple of doozies.
3. That said, Macs go bad less often than Windows PCs. Mac users are more productive than Windows users because Macs experience fewer problems. There's nothing mystical about it either. There are some obvious reasons why this is the case: The Mac is a closed hardware/software system. The OS isn't forced to contend with a vast variety of hardware, and the hardware is carefully vetted so that it works perfectly with the software. Apple controls the horizontal; it controls the vertical. The hardware and software are a matched set.
Apple has also had an enduring, consistent vision about usability. It's willing to sacrifice both power and flexibility to create a user interface that is far more intuitive than other operating systems. So Macs work better and are easier to use. That's it in a nutshell.
What would you pay for a computer that doesn't currently need anti-malware software? On most Windows PCs – especially consumer-spec'ed PCs – the security software is robbing the PC of so much system overhead that the user experience suffers. This one difference alone delivers a small reduction of software costs and a large reduction of helpdesk calls.
When it comes to hardware, Macs have long been perceived as overpriced and underpowered – and that may have been true in the past. But when you compare today's premium Windows-based hardware, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad T60 series, to the Apple MacBook Pro, what you find is that you don't pay a premium for the Mac hardware. You can easily pay a lot more for a high-end Lenovo notebook than for a MacBook Pro. Of course, it's also possible to pay less for Dell hardware than you would for Apple hardware.
The point is that Apple isn't necessarily the most expensive hardware vendor out there. And given the productivity and reliability of Mac hardware, it's not as expensive as it may seem. Of course, if you don't already have Macintosh expertise in your helpdesk, then it's a big deal to add. But more and more companies have already accepted that challenge.
The problem in assessing Mac total cost of ownership comes at the low end. Apple should create economy-oriented, business-class desktop and notebook hardware. The iMac is a home machine. And while the MacBook is fairly inexpensive, there are too many tradeoffs – such as its Chiclet-like keyboard – for it to succeed in the business world. (Not everyone agrees with me on this point. Some believe that Apple's consumer Macs are enterprise-worthy.)
Since Apple offers very few SKUs, it's almost impossible for enterprise buyers to save money by specifying this or that lesser feature in order to reduce cost. Without a model specifically designed for low-end business desktops, Apple just isn't competitive there.
Microsoft's buzz kill
There was a time when people jokingly described Apple as Microsoft's advanced software lab. Anyone who follows operating systems – please, be objective if your knee-jerk reaction is to disagree – has to realize that Microsoft has imitated literally hundreds of features and behaviours of Mac OS X. Yes, there are some advantages that originated with Microsoft (such as file icon thumbnail previews). But OS X is clearly leading the desktop OS parade. Everyone is copying Apple – and with good reason.
The time for joking has passed. Microsoft hasn't exactly failed with Vista. But it's more like a double than a home run. Apple is innovating not just with the software and hardware it creates, but with the value proposition it is building in the marketplace. Apple hasn't ever been particularly good about that before. Sure, it's managed to appeal to people's aesthetic sensibilities, but almost never to people's wallets. While Macs still aren't cheap, you get a lot more bang for the buck than you once did.
And that's why Microsoft should read the vibe and think twice about ignoring Apple this time. Microsoft nearly missed the boat on the internet last decade. It backed into a giant antitrust brouhaha. It has had huge problems with security this decade. Through its own inattention to Internet Explorer, it allowed Mozilla's Firefox to gain a bridgehead on browser market share. Even dyed-in-the-wool Windows enterprises are fed up with me-too Microsoft upgrades, the never-ending blizzard of security patches, the increasing hardware requirements for Vista, volume licensing snafus, and a litany of other complaints and sore points.
Nothing lasts forever. The bloom is coming off the rose on Microsoft. I would never put it past the software giant to come up with a way to remake itself in a better light. But the current course doesn't appear to me to lead in that direction. As much as Apple is doing things right, Microsoft is doing things wrong. That's a great combination for Apple, if it can keep walking the current tightrope.
In the end, this is about perception. It isn't about Apple's market share or even its quarterly sales numbers. (Apple's notebook computer sales for the fourth quarter were 4.1 per cent of all portable computer sales, according to DisplaySearch.) What this is about is that Apple is reaching the right people with its product, winning new converts, Windows user by Windows user – and creating buzz.
How do you measure buzz? You don't. It's something that experienced people in this industry can just feel. And that's the condition Microsoft should fear. Because buzz can turn into something much harder to combat than sheer numbers.
Scot Finnie is Computerworld's US online editorial director. This blog entry first appeared on Computerworld US.