The Operating System Wars: Decisions, Decisions

August 5th, 2009

As much as you want to think that Apple and Microsoft are involved in a fight to the death over operating system market share, the fact of the matter is that these two companies have very different business plans. Apple is selling hardware, be it Macs, iPods or iPhones. The operating system is an intrinsic part of the package, and thus bundled with their gear.

Sure, Apple sells OS upgrades for Macs, but largely as an accommodation to allow existing customers to take advantage of the same features. That certainly helps in putting Mac users in similar environments for more efficient quality control, and to give developers an opportunity to build products that reach more potential customers.

As to Apple’s own software, they are mostly value extras for Mac users, and are thus priced inexpensively. iLife ships free on new Macs, and the upgrades are a mere $79, putting the suite in the shareware price range. The same pricing applies to iWork.

Even their professional content creation app suites have becoming amazingly affordable for what they offer. The new Logic Studio remains at $499 for an incredible variety of recording software and utilities, and the upgrade is a mere $199. The Final Cut Studio suite for film and movie editing is now $999, and $299 for the upgrade. A few years ago, Apple’s pro apps would cost thousands of dollars. These days, the price for both is almost a drop in the bucket for anyone employed in various multimedia professions.

Apple’s upgrade strategy for Snow Leopard is well executed. It may be that accounting regulations don’t allow them to make it a free download, but a $29 purchase price is low enough to make it a casual purchase for any Mac user with an Intel-based model. Indeed, it may well be that Apple will quickly push 10.6 to a hefty majority of eligible customers within the space of a few months, meaning a much larger user base for developers to reach with updated products that take advantage of the powerful new features.

In contrast, Microsoft sells software, and leaves the hardware to its OEM partners, except for entertainment and input ddevices.

Yes, Microsoft has cut the price of Windows 7 as compared to Vista, but it’s still a purchase that involves a larger investment in time and money. Maybe the installation process will be smoother, with fewer user interventions beyond the initial entry of the serial number, and perhaps the outcomes will be more successful. But it’s doubtful the process will be as well executed as the one Apple is prepping for Snow Leopard.

Consider what Apple says on the subject, although there’s some hype in their message: “Upgrading your Mac has never been easier. For Snow Leopard, the entire process has been simplified, streamlined, and is up to 45 percent faster, yet more comprehensive and reliable. For example, Snow Leopard checks your applications to make sure they’re compatible and sets aside any programs known to be incompatible. In case a power outage interrupts your installation, it can start again without losing any data.”

Would a Windows 7 installation resume after a power outage, or would you be left with a total mess that you have to sort out before you can attempt a reinstallation? Sure, maybe everyone needs a backup battery at hand in case of such emergencies, particularly in storm-prone locales, but Microsoft surely has the resources to do as well or better than Apple in making their OS upgrades safe. But it hasn’t happened, and there’s little indication that it’s a high priority on Microsoft’s bullet point list of new features.

This isn’t to say that you necessarily have to be gouged by Microsoft to buy Windows 7. You’ll be able to get it free with a new PC this fall, and if you can place yourself within the narrow confines of OEM customer, perhaps by saying you are assembling your PC by yourself, you’ll pay a lot less money. What a complicated state of affairs, and it’s why Microsoft is encountering more and more difficulties getting people to upgrade nowadays.

Worse, Microsoft appears to be betting the farm on the success of Windows 7. Steve Ballmer, who believes Apple’s success is nothing more than a “rounding error,” wants you to think that millions of customers have been holding off buying new PCs until the Windows upgrade is available. Then an avalanche of customers will hit the stores or place their owners online to be first on the block for something that offers little demonstrable advantage over Vista. Sure, maybe it’ll be a little faster, and perhaps a tad more reliable. But is that going to be the magic bullet?

Indeed, do people buy PCs because of the operating system or because the hardware specs and pricing appear to fit their requirements? It’s not as if most of them actually make decisions based on the bundled operating system.

Of course, a lot of that is also true for the Mac. They buy them because they are pretty and powerful and are sufficiently well equipped to meet their needs. Yes, the Mac OS is a major factor, but I wonder how many people consider that distinction.

My gut feeling, for now at least, is that their may be an uptick in PC sales when Windows 7 comes along, but it would be insufficient to rescue Microsoft from the sales doldrums.

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19 Responses to “The Operating System Wars: Decisions, Decisions”

  1. dfs says:

    To be fair, MS has a problem that Apple doesn’t: getting out an OS that works on about a gazillion different PCs . OSX only has to work on a small number of Mac models, where the results are a whole lot more predictable and controllable, and that must make life a whole lot easier for their software designers and their opposite numbers up in Redmond must be jealous. That being said, MS has a large marketing problem at the moment. Before Vista was released a lot of PCs were sold, billed as being “Vista ready,” but when when Vista appeared it turned out that they were at best only marginally capable of running that OS. Result: a large bunch of unhappy customers, many of whom scurried back to XP as fast as they could, and no doubt anybody who got bit by that scam will think long and hard about buying another PC with the intention of running it with Windows 7 until he’s damn sure it will actually work with that OS. And I suspect that many of these customers aren’t going to be satisfied with any prerelease beta, they’ll want to see the actual finished product itself. So there’s going to be a lot of customer hesitation until Windows 7 is out, has been tested on a lot of different models, and is a known quantity in the marketplace. This may be one reason why PC sales are soft at the moment. Apple doesn’t play games like that, so it doesn’t have to confront any similar customer backlash.

  2. Snafu says:

    If Snow Leopard, as a $79 upgrade for Leopard users, happens to require a previous Leopard install, then a full install’s time is going to be far lengthier than half of Leopard’s.

    Also, for what Apple makes me pay for the hardware I don’t feel that privileged, really.

  3. Snafu wrote:

    If Snow Leopard, as a $79 upgrade for Leopard users, happens to require a previous Leopard install, then a full install’s time is going to be far lengthier than half of Leopard’s.

    Since you’re writing from Europe, it’s in Euros I suppose. But it’s $29 U.S., and I would think the European equivalent won’t be much if at all higher.

    I don’t know the logistics of the installation setup. It may only need to see evidence of a Leopard installation, but still give you the options of an upgrade or clean install. Regardless, I’ll take Apple’s word of a faster installation process as reasonably accurate, absent evidence to the contrary.

    We’ll know soon enough.


  4. John Date says:

    Great article, but I know for myself that I would follow the Mac OS anywhere it went, provided the hardware was sufficient in power and quality. My take on user satisfaction does consider hardware design rather highly, but it’s not the deal breaker: the OS is. Ask any Mac hardware user who has Windows installed along-side OS X – which OS do they use more?

  5. Louis G Wheeler says:

    Yes, dfs, Microsoft has problems of its own making. It chose unwisely.

    It engineered taking over the Operating System market by supplying the IBM compatible computers with an OS — first with DOS and then with Windows. This meant that the major competition was on the hardware side as everyone rushed toward the lowest price and the highest Megahertz. Microsoft didn’t see that there was a down side to this: an extremely long legacy tail which its customers wouldn’t allow to be cut off. Hence, While Apple could be the leading edge with the newest hardware and software concepts by cutting off any hardware that was over five years old, Microsoft edges toward obsolescence.

    Microsoft’s problems with Vista were due to it being unable to finish up the Longhorn OS. They had to start all over with a clean copy of Windows Server 2003 which was an extension of Windows NT. This caused Vista to be based on 12 year old software. Windows NT has design compromises which hampers its security. Those compromises have been included in System seven.

    Then, Microsoft put a advanced compositing graphics engine in Vista which copied Apple’s Aqua. The problem is that this was nothing that Microsoft’s customers wanted. Microsoft forced Wintel manufacturers to upgrade their hardware to match Apple’s and this shrank the cost differences between them. Microsoft’s customers fled to Windows XP because Vista was slow on expensive hardware.

    Windows System seven is what Vista should have been three years ago. Apple’s Snow Leopard should leave it n the dust.

    Almost all applications should be 64 bit code next year, since the only thing necessary for developers to do to upgrade their Xcode applications is merely a recompile, The developers will do this upgrade to gain a 25 to 50% speed boost from being able to utilize the extra registers in the Intel Core 2 processors.

    So, when Microsoft has before it a very routine upgrade which will be cautiously accepted by its users, Apple will give its users more speed and capabilities. That is something from them to get excited about.

    It will take the developers six to twelve months to start using Grand Central Dispatch which allows them to use multiple cores and threads better. Then there is OpenCL which will allow the developer to use the cores in the GPU. Exciting times are ahead for Apple users, but only a ho-hum one for windows. Perhaps that is the way that Microsoft and the Enterprise market wants it.

  6. Richard says:

    I’ve run Windows as a matter of necessity since Windows 95, although always in a business setting in which the choice of computer and software was made for me. I still use Windows occasionally on one of my three household Mac systems to accomplish things I just can’t seem to find software for on the Mac.

    Windows is not as bad as many Mac users say, but it isn’t good, either. It is living life with many aches and pains. The OS is clumsy and obtuse. When I am asked what this means by Windows users, I point out the various frustrations attached to Windows use; they are usually surprised because, after all, “computers are like that.” They are insensitive to fine points, their touch dull and unfeeling. There is no need to debate, as they can’t hear.

    If Apple had a different business plan, it might make a difference with the vast majority of OS users, although it would be the plan that would win Apple great numbers of new users, and not the quality of the software itself. Many of my Windows using friends have strong left arms from holding their car doors on, and are proud of their strength; the invention of hinges seems immaterial to them.

  7. DaveD says:

    I don’t think the average computer buyers care about the OS. The number one thing on their mind is cost. The cheaper the PC, the better. They want a machine that browse the web, watch YouTube, and do e-mails, word processing, social networking, etc. The applications are more important than the OS.

    You have never seen an Apple’s commercial on Mac OS X. Their selling point is providing the best overall experience. The Mac experience comes from the combination of OS X, a suite of applications, and hardware that performs well and looks stunning. During the long hours of use, you seldom become angry.

    PC shoppers looking for a great deal are not concern as to what brand of hardware to buy or version of Windows included. Power users are more discriminating in the machine they want. Only the more knowledgeable shoppers are aware to try to avoid a bad version of Windows such as Windows Me and Windows Vista (Me 2 or Me too).

  8. @ DaveD: Part of the problem for Apple is that Microsoft wants everyone to believe that all PCs are basically the same, whether they run the Mac OS or Windows. So it’s all about price, so may the cheaper product win. We know that’s not true, but the illusion persists among far too many people.


  9. Louis G Wheeler says:

    Richard said:
    “If Apple had a different business plan, it might make a difference with the vast majority of OS users, although it would be the plan that would win Apple great numbers of new users, and not the quality of the software itself.”

    A long time ago, back in the Windows 98 days, Wintel pundits would mock the Mac OS because it didn’t have reentrant programing, preemptive scheduling and protected memory. Neither Windows 95 or 98 had them either. Windows NT, which had them, was only used for servers at the time. Pointing these facts out to the pundits didn’t change a thing; they weren’t going to allow the facts to get in the way of a good story.

    The Mac OS wasn’t all that bad in comparison to Windows, but its reputation suffered from Microsoft’s propaganda. The point was that unless you had a badly behaved application, you didn’t need them. The most badly behaved application on the Mac at the time was Internet Explorer.

    Wintel pundits used a checklist which was part of Microsoft’s FUD machine; it judged everything from a Wintel perspective — megahertz mostly. Real world performance or ease of use wasn’t important, so the deck was stacked against Apple.

    Steve Jobs when he came back from Next to Apple decided that the OS wars were over. Many people contended that this was a defeatist attitude. It was not. Steve chose not to fight on Microsoft’s battleground or according to MS’s checklist.

    Steve put Apple’s house in order; it stopped using Wintel’s business plan and marching to Wintel’s tune. The Mac Clones had to go and Apple started making unique and fashionable computers. Along the way, Apple has removed every item from that checklist, but price, by producing superior computers. But that superiority has been underrated for a variety of reasons. But, we are on the verge of a sea change.

    Part of this is that Microsoft Windows has gotten so bad. And that MS’s business plan is showing its weaknesses. The computer market is a replacement market. There is little reason to buy a new computer unless yours breaks. There is nothing to get excited about.

    It takes a great effort to break a major trend. People get accustomed to doing thing in a tried and true way. But, there are issues happening which will persuade people to give the Mac a try.

    It won’t be from changing Apple’s business plan, either. Apple is carefully acting to diminish Microsoft. Snow Leopard will be a part of this offensive. Snow Leopard will be very fast and 64 bit. It will be able to do things which Wintel users could not dream of. That fact is true now, but is ignored.

    Apple is leaving its legacy hardware and applications behind. A new day will be opening up for Apple. Windows Seven will be better received than Vista, but there will be no excitement. If you want excitement, you will have to come to Apple.

    This is a long slow careful plan which Apple is working on. The leading edge will be at Apple; early adopters will flock to it. Microsoft will be slowly confined to its Enterprise niche. And no one will care.

  10. DaveD says:

    @ Gene Steinberg:
    I agree with your assessments.

    If every PC makers play the “race to the bottom” game then there would possibly be a major industry shakeup. Apple appears to be quite savvy to not play, staying above the fray. If the consolidation occurs, Apple may benefit from it.

    What if Apple was to be again a “mover and shaker” in the PC market? A mythical pad that would provide a sea change in the computing experience that became the next “must have” device. Would that turn the PC industry upside down? What smart remark would Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer utter? Well, I like to dream.


  11. Louis G Wheeler says:

    Trends are in the works, DaveD, which Microsoft cannot control. This is because technical changes will be undercutting the form factors on which our computers are built. The old paradigms will shatter as the computers we use fragment into many parts. The Netbook is the leading edge of that technical change. The next five years will be a very trying time until it all settles out. Many companies will not survive the upheaval.

    Some people think that this change will make the Operating System irrelevant because many of the computers parts will be run by Linux. I disagree, because this change invites chaos. There will always be a place for the kind of great computing experience which Apple provides.

    Apple is on the leading edge; it won’t be caught napping. It won’t be trying to maintain the Status quo Ante the way that Microsoft will.

  12. dfs says:

    “Trends are in the works, DaveD, which Microsoft cannot control. This is because technical changes will be undercutting the form factors on which our computers are built. The old paradigms will shatter as the computers we use fragment into many parts.” Not so fast, Louis. While it’s obvious enough that the traditional computer will be supplemented by a lot of devices that perform some of its individual functions, I’m not quite ready to write its obituary. In the first place, many of these devices will primarily be aimed at individual users and won’t adequately address the needs of the Enterprise. Second, most if not all of these devices will fill the bill for essentially passive content-consumers. But what about the needs of content-creators? If I’m going to create a Website, edit music, images, or videos, or design the apps that will run on these other devices, I’m going to need a traditional computer, and I can’t see that changing for the foreseeable future. What may be closer to the truth is that we will see the fading-away of the low-end computer which is used primarily by these passive content-consumers (a netbook will do just as well as a laptop if you’re only using your laptop to do netbook-type stuff), while the more powerful and sophisticated computers required by content-creators will keep on marching. Care to guess what corporation is going to be hurt by that, and what one is going to benefit?

    By the way, responding to an earlier remark on this thread, yes, it’s true that Apple has never highlighted OSX in its advertising. Which, I think, is a big mistake. If you’re making an OS, then, among other things, you’re doing essentially what a cruise ship line or a Vegas casino does: you are marketing an experience, and one of the most powerful arguments in favor of OSX (besides reliability and security) is that it delivers a more pleasurable and satisfying user experience than the competition. It looks and feels better, it’s more fun to use so that the line between work and play is constantly getting blurred, and it’s ergonomics are vastly superior (looked at from one angle, Apple isn’t an electronics or software corporation so much as it’s an industrial design shop, and it’s one of the best in the business). This is a very powerful selling point.

  13. Louis G Wheeler says:

    I don’t think you understand what I mean.

    Computers have gone through an number of phases. When I was getting into them in the ’60’s, it was all about thin clients run by Dec and IBM mainframes. Then came the fat client computer workstation (a PC hooked to a mainframe which could still do work if the mainframe went down.) Next, was the stand alone PC and then the Internet. The coming change is going to be as big as those previous ones. You will notice that the big change never gets rid of the previous ones. But, many of the big names from back then are gone. Where is Wang Computers, these days?

    So, what is the change that I am talking about? Is it Google OS and its web aps? No. It is that the Computer-on-a-chip will become ubiquitous and so cheap that it get into everything. It is still unclear how this will work out, because there are movers and shakers trying to move it in various directions. We don’t know which will win: universal computers, universal memory or a combination of both?

    You won’t have a single monitor or two, but may have several in each room. You won’t have a DSL cable; you will have home server that communicates to all your dozens of devises. You will have VR glasses and dictation headphones to give commands. This will not happen because you needs have increased, but because everything will get so cheap, so tiny and so personal.

    The point I was making about the netbook is that it is one of the first applications for the computer-on-a-chip and soon everything will have them in it. As an early application, the netbook is a lousy product, but that will change.

    “By the way, responding to an earlier remark on this thread, yes, it’s true that Apple has never highlighted OSX in its advertising. Which, I think, is a big mistake.”

    No. You must sell the sizzle not the steak. You must sell the benefits, not the features. The Mac ads sell you on what you can do. And that it is easy to do excellent work on the Mac. The Ads, also, play on the angers and resentments of the Windows users. The point is to get you to take a look at a Mac the next time you throw up your hands at your PC .

    It usually takes a while for people to get the Mac experience — a month or two of use. There an unlearning curve which people have to go through. No one can experience that for you.

    Remember the Switcher Ads? They sold the Mac experience. I know that the Mac Users liked them. But I don’t believe that they were as effective as the current ads are with Windows users.

  14. DaveD says:

    Louis G Wheeler & dfs,

    Yes, dfs, there will probably be a market for high-end computers. Heck, IBM still has their mainframes. Within the PC market, sales were driven up by frequent replacements. There was a need to replace over that last 15 years. Is that still true today?

    I do lean to what Louis has stated.

    Just looking at Apple, you saw it change during this decade. At the beginning, it was all about Macs and Mac OS X. As we are beginning to close 2009 out, it is about iPods, iPhones, OS X (Mac and iPhone) and Macs. Note the trend and within Macs, it’s mostly about the ‘books based on the number of product refreshes and sales.

    The popularity of netbooks is an indicator of a need to fulfill.


  15. AdamC says:


    Apple didn’t make you pay for your Mac (if you’re using one), you did.

  16. Tom says:

    From what I’m hearing Windows 7 will require a complete wipe & clean install in order to work at all.

  17. Tom wrote:

    From what I’m hearing Windows 7 will require a complete wipe & clean install in order to work at all.

    That appears to be a matter of the installation scenario. There are dozens, which is bound to confuse most everyone who tries. The best method would be to buy a new PC, which is what the industry is hoping for.


  18. Tom says:

    That’s true Gene, but people and the industry are finding more and more that there is little to get exited about when it comes to Windows the OS, and the machines it runs on. There’s nothing for the consumer to get excited about, so they tend to hold on for as long as they can before upgrading, unless otherwise enticed by price. I believe I may have heard this from you on your podcast last week “only gaming machines are offering anything substantial, and most hardcore gamers are using dedicated devices”.

    Windows will continue to struggle in the area of providing anything to excite the public with Steve Ballmer at the helm, and especially now that some of their staunchest advocates in the press are starting to grow weary of their antics (see a recent article by John Dvorak),2817,2351198,00.asp

    Peace Always

  19. “It’s not as if most of them actually make decisions based on the bundled operating system.”

    So true, and so sad.

    “There is no need to debate, as they can’t hear.”

    At long last I’ve reached that conclusion.

    “Many of my Windows using friends have strong left arms from holding their car doors on, and are proud of their strength; the invention of hinges seems immaterial to them.”

    LOL. Thanks for that! And, of course, many Mac users have strong left arms as well, but it’s by choice.

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