• Microsoft’s Delays and Apple’s Golden Opportunity

    March 25th, 2006

    All the bad news from Microsoft appears to indicate the company has its share of problems. In fact, this has been a perfectly awful week for the house that Bill Gates built.

    First there’s the news that the consumer version of Windows Vista will miss its holiday shipping deadline, and won’t be out until 2007. PC box makers are going to have to find something else to sell their products, and don’t be surprised if they take the hit and offer ultra-cheap or free Vista upgrades for folks who buy a new computer for the holidays.

    Second, Microsoft reorganizes its Windows unit, and you can bet that’s a strong public statement, regardless of the spin, that things have gone terribly wrong in its operating system arena. It’s also meant to reassure everyone, including Wall Street, that the company will somehow get its act together. Of course, whether anyone believes it is another matter entirely.

    And, as might be expected, the forthcoming Office 2007 gets a late slip too, and this will supposedly allow for a simultaneous release of both products. Of course, missing the critical holiday season no doubt means that Microsoft will need to ramp up the Xbox publicity machine, to divert your attention and surely to compete with Sony’s PSP 3, which will be in full bloom by then. That is, unless Sony, too, is beset with still another delay.

    Meantime, in this corner is Apple Computer with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain a huge amount of market share at the expense of Microsoft. It’s not, of course, as if lots of businesses will all suddenly desert the Windows platform and buy new Macs, even if the technique to dual-boot both operating systems has be greatly simplified by then. That’s a market that will provide only modest support for the Mac and, as usual, largely in the creative departments. When it comes to consumers, however, it’ll be a different story, and here Apple might have the entire field largely to itself, even if PC makers fall over themselves offering deals to get the Vista upgrade, whenever that really ships.

    As a practical matter, you might expect that Apple will want to shorten its Leopard development time, and that Steve will get the troops in line to get it out in some decent form by late October or early November. But will it even be possible? Bear in mind that the WWDC won’t occur until August, and developers are going to want a reasonable amount of time to absorb the changes in 10.5 and get to work bringing their products in line. No doubt there will have to be special kits to allow developers to harness the new features in their own products and forcing them to add support within a couple of months will be no mean trick. Lest we forget, many will still be trying to get their Universal upgrades out the door.

    Yet, most of the heavy lifting of Mac OS X has already been done, and it may well be that Apple can no concentrate on packing on new and improved features without affecting the basic plumbing. That means that the need for major updates won’t be necessary. Just about anything that runs properly on Tiger will run on Leopard, and if that’s the case, as many hope, it won’t matter if there’s a very short window of opportunity. Now that would be a statement that’ll get loud cheers, because it’ll provide reassurance to developers that they don’t have to do a thing to ensure full Leopard support

    Remember, also, that all new Macs will be shipping with Intel processors by then. In fact, you may likely see second generation versions of the MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac mini, since Intel makes frequent and very public updates to its chips. There will be plenty of stuff to sell for the holidays, and having all that gear ship with a brand new version of the Mac OS will be the icing on the cake. At the same time, Apple won’t have to confront the Windows marketing machine head on. It’ll have the field for itself.

    But there is one potential downside here, regardless of whether Leopard ships before the end of the year or not, and that’s whether people truly care about operating systems these days. This is a point I’ve raised before. While Microsoft will probably have a harder time persuading its customers to upgrade to Vista, at least until there’s plenty of vetting time to check for serious bugs and other issues, it won’t be a cake walk for Apple.

    I mean, how often do you really want to spend $129 for Mac OS upgrades, when the one you’re using runs perfectly fine now? Sure, Apple has slowed its operating system development process to a more reasonable level. I’m even sure that it will graft some awesome features onto Leopard to entice you to buy a copy. But, other than getting it on a new Mac, will you just decide you are perfectly content with Tiger for now?

    On the other hand, Apple will probably be too busy selling iPods and other consumer electronics gear to care.

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