Apple, Linux Miss Golden Opportunity to Snag Desktop Market Share

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Jan 20, 2009


Paul Rubens
Top-dog OS on the enterprise desktop? Linux and Apple had a golden chance to grab that title, and boy did they blow it! Despite having nothing better to offer enterprise customers than the ridiculous Vista or the ancient XP for the past two years, Microsoft still rules the enterprise desktop. And with Windows 7, that reign is set to continue. OS Roundup: Neither Apple nor the Linux distros reaped much benefit from the Microsoft product breach known as a Vista. With Windows 7 now on the horizon, is a mainstream, non-Windows desktop a lost cause?

The failure to kick Microsoft while it was down and make serious inroads into the enterprise market is seriously dispiriting for fans of The Fruit and the Penguin, not least because OS X and many desktop Linux distros have been going from strength to strength. Opportunities like the one Vista's failure afforded don't come around very often.

Apple's desktop OS has never been more popular in the consumer market place and is certainly the one with all the momentum. Its market penetration has reached almost 10 percent, and there are plenty of Linux distros that are popular with consumers too, particularly Ubuntu. Intrepid Ibex, the latest desktop release, is far and away the best Ubuntu release there's ever been.

But with Windows 7 now appearing over the horizon, Apple and Linux have left it too late. Here's why.

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For one, Apple's recent success at upping its market share has largely been achieved by laughing at Vista. But Vista won't be around to be laughed at much longer. But that's academic now anyway. Without Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple is finished as a competitor to Microsoft for a good few years to come. (Jobs announced a six-month leave of absence for medical reasons, and I wish him a full and speedy recovery. But there is a huge question mark over whether he will ever choose to or be able to return.)

We've seen how Apple languished without its leader from 1985 to 1997. During that time, it was run by John Sculley, whom Steve Jobs hand-picked to head up the company. What chance does Apple have with the team Jobs has hand-picked to run the company this time? And given the reputation he has for an autocratic leadership style, how can anyone else fill in for him — especially with the chance that he may return at some point in the future?

It's possible that Apple under new leadership will make a concerted effort to establish OS X in the enterprise, but even if that is to be the case, it would be several years before the fruits of that work became apparent. Windows 7 clearly has nothing to fear from Apple for a long time to come.

What about Linux? The OS has many virtues, and anyone who has used it understands that it is far more powerful and flexible than Windows can ever be. Not to mention being far more stable and heaps more secure. But what many Linux users don't seem to understand is that it won't make a serious impression in the enterprise for many many years because most computer users simply aren't ready for it.

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This was beautifully illustrated last week by Abbie Schubert, who made the news after she ordered a Dell computer that came with Ubuntu. To cut a long story short, she couldn't connect to the Internet, she couldn't write documents using OpenOffice in Word-compatible format, and because of this she was unable to enroll and take classes at her local technical college.

In fact there is no reason why she could not have done all of these things with Ubuntu, but the point is that she didn't know how. The virtues of Linux were irrelevant to her — what use were they when she couldn't get on to the Internet? And since desktop OSes almost invariably have to get established in the consumer market space before reaching unskilled enterprise users, Ubuntu's failure with the likes of Ms. Schubert demonstrates that Linux won't be threatening Windows 7 in the foreseeable future either.

Linux actually blew two opportunities to establish itself with end users last year The second was the windfall opportunity to establish a foothold in the consumer market place via netbooks, the surprise success of 2008. But while Asus's EeePC and Acer's Aspire One — as well as many other vendors' netbooks — went from strength to strength, capturing 16 percent of the notebook market, the original concept of a low-cost, easy-to-use laptop running Linux had to be changed to accommodate a less low-cost model running Windows.

Why? Because that was what consumers demanded. And why was that? In a word, advertising. The power of advertising should not be underestimated, and without mindshare the consumer was always going to be suspicious of a "new" OS on a new type of computer. How reassuring it was to know that the netbook he or she was buying would run Windows XP.

And that leads to a more general problem with Linux. Apple has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and still managed to get only a single-digit share of the consumer market. How is Linux ever going to take on Microsoft when Red Hat, Novell and Ubuntu seem unlikely to go anywhere close to matching that?

So it looks like Microsoft is unlikely to see any serious competition for the enterprise desktop any time soon. It has maintained its tight grip on the market when it had nothing better than Vista to offer. The indications from the beta are that Windows 7 is a much better product — a mature and slimmed-down version of Vista with little of the bloat. And Microsoft has slammed closed the window of opportunity that netbooks presented to Linux by ensuring that the new OS runs well on ultra-portable devices and including features in 7 that make it run well on solid state drives.

As Vista passes into history, Linux and Apple may never again have such a great chance of getting on to the enterprise desktop. Sorry chaps, but you blew it big time.

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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