Windows Market Share Persists, Despite Apple's Marketing Glitz

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Feb 3, 2009

Paul Rubens
OS Roundup: Think Apple's such a master at marketing? Then how do you account for Microsoft's long-standing hold on the desktop? A hold that Windows 7 aims to make even tighter.

It's a widely accepted fact that Apple is a master of marketing, while Microsoft is a walking disaster when it comes to the business of branding and getting people to buy its products.

Just look at the different approaches the two companies take when it comes to naming their operating systems: Apple markets versions of OS X with punchy, red blooded names like "Leopard," "Panther" and "Tiger," while Microsoft gives Windows rather effete monikers like ME, XP and Vista.

John Tantillo, TV's "Marketing Doctor," posits on his blog that Apple is a brand Winner, and Microsoft is a brand Loser, pointing out that Apple recently reported a profit of $1.6 billion in the last quarter ending December 27, while Microsoft reported earnings problems and layoffs. Apple's marketing excellence will stand it in good stead in the current downturn, he said. "Even in the most hostile economies, real marketing can mean the difference between profit and loss," was the Tantillo takeaway.

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While this is certainly true, what's interesting is that it omits to say that poor naive Microsoft, which has none of the slick marketing savvy and sophisticated savoir-faire of Apple, still managed to make a tidy profit of $4.17 billion in the last quarter ending December 31. And despite being clueless about how to sell a computer operating system, it still managed to outsell Apple by at least 9 to 1 according to research from Net Applications. In fact, the true figure may actually be much greater, as Apple's market share is far higher in the United States than the rest of the world, and Net Applications figures likely over-represent North America.

So how great is Apple at marketing, really? Consider that in the 25 years since the launch of the Mac, Apple has still managed to persuade only a tiny minority of computer buyers to use its OS rather than Windows, despite its supposed genius for marketing. This would be understandable if OS X were a lemon, but in fact it has several things going for it: It's not under constant attack from hackers and malware writers; it's easy to use — even for creative types who often struggle with technology; and it looks nice, making it attractive for non-tech savvy enterprise users who might be spooked by anything that looks too much like a computer.

Something doesn't add up here. Either Apple's marketing is not nearly as masterful as popular wisdom would have us believe, or OS X isn't all that great beneath the eye-candy.

This must come as quite a relief for Microsoft, since no one ever accused it of being good at marketing, and Microsoft's Vista has turned out not to be nearly as appealing as the company had hoped. In fact, enterprise adoption of the desktop OS appears to have stalled. A recently completed hardware survey from Forrester Research found that "Windows Vista is now powering just fewer than 10 percent of all PCs within enterprises," barely a percentage point higher than it was six months ago. Service Pack 1 was meant to bolster enterprise adoption of Vista, but that clearly hasn't happened.

That would be pretty terrifying for Microsoft, given that its alternative — Windows XP — is now seven years old, were it not for the fact that the uninspiringly named 7 (what marketing genius came up with that one?) is looming ever nearer on the horizon.

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The new OS is now API- and feature-complete, and the current beta, which expires in August, is both the first and the last, according to Steve Sinofsky, Microsoft's senior vice president in charge of Windows 7, on the Engineering Windows 7 blog. It will be followed by a single Release Candidate (RC) before the Release to Manufacturing (RTM) of up to six different SKUs: Windows 7 Home Premium, Windows 7 Professional, Windows 7 Enterprise and so on, according to Engadget.

Sinofsky has a reputation for getting things shipped, and was moved from Microsoft's Office business to head up the Windows and Windows Live group about three years ago to ensure that that a debacle on the scale of Vista, which was repeatedly delayed and badly received, did not happen again. It looks like that was a very smart move indeed.

Windows 7 is pretty key for Microsoft in the enterprise. Few companies will adopt Vista when a release candidate of the new OS is only a few months away. "The obvious question is that we know the Pre-Beta was October 28, 2008, and the Beta was January 7th, so when is the Release Candidate and RTM? The answer is forthcoming," said Sinofsky, rather unhelpfully.

But he does provide a few clues. Talking about the gap between the time 7 is released to manufacturing and when it becomes generally available in stores or pre-loaded on new PCs, Sinofsky said, "It is worth noting that the Release Candidate will continue to function long enough so no one should worry and everyone should feel free to keep running the Release Candidate." Since it is pretty inconceivable that the Release Candidate, which is pretty much finished code, will run as long as the beta, it's a good bet that 7 will be generally available around the end of the year — probably before the consumer holiday buying season rather than after. Enterprise adoption is unlikely to pick up in earnest for at least nine months after that.

Microsoft will certainly be feeling confident with the positive reviews that 7 has been garnering so far. Yes, it will still be targeted by hackers and malware writers, and thanks (in part) to the huge gamut of hardware it will be expected to run on, it may not be as stable as OS X. It will not be as stable as Linux either. But if it addresses the problems of Vista, then Microsoft can expect it to be as successful as XP was in helping the company win almost the entire enterprise desktop market. Regardless of how inept its marketing is.

So how does one compete with Microsoft for the enterprise desktop? Perhaps only a paradigm shift will do it. That certainly seems to be what Novell is hoping, with the announcement earlier this week that its SUSE Linux will be included preloaded on its OptiPlex FX160 thin client hardware. The idea that thin clients running Linux will break Microsoft's dominance in the enterprise seems like a long shot, but in the long term, you never know ...

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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