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The Operating System Wars: Decisions, Decisions

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.