Apple's Latest Muddle

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Mar 31, 2009


Paul Rubens
Hold on to your horses! The wheels could be about to come off the OS X Apple cart.

OS Roundup: The wheels may be coming loose on the OS X Apple cart, as the gadget-maker struggles for a niche in the computer and operating systems market.

The Cupertino-based gadget-maker is well known for its highly successful iPhones and excellent iPod media players, but it is still trying to convince the world that it is serious about its legacy computer business as well.

The trouble is the company is in a bit of a muddle right now when it comes to selling its computers and operating systems.

Apple's marketing would have you believe that (Windows) PCs are for business people, while Macs are for having fun. But there's a hole in this argument so big you could drive a London bus through it. The elephant in the room is "games." If you buy a computer for fun, you probably want to play games on it, and you'll quickly learn that most halfway decent games don't run on OS X.

Apple also seems to be addressing the wrong end of the market. It's producing multi-thousand dollar machines when it's the bottom end of the market — filled with low cost laptops and netbooks that cost a few hundred dollars — that's on fire at the moment.

Being seen as expensive is a luxury Apple could afford in a boom, but in tricky economic times it doesn't seem so clever. Microsoft seems intent on exposing this weakness in its latest ad campaign, which highlights the premium Apple charges for its Macs compared to similar Windows machines. For under a thousand bucks, you've got a choice of one tiny-screened Apple laptop, or loads of generously sized Windows machines, the commercial says. Macs are for the very rich; Windows machines are computers for the rest of us, in other words.

Luxury computers are not the sorts of machines businesses tend to look at, but Apple's now running a series of Better Bottom Line seminars to try to convince business people that buying high-priced systems with operating systems incompatible with most business applications is actually a good idea. It's a market Apple has addressed in the past, but to date it has failed to make any impact — both on the client side and with its OS X server offerings.

The elephant in the room this time is not games but the thousands of business apps that OS X simply won't run. Of course, if buyers don't mind forking out even more money, they can always buy a copy of Windows and run it their new Mac so they can use all those business applications — which begs the question why they would bother buying a Mac at all.

Perhaps because OS X is more secure? Not so, according to security researcher Charlie Miller, who compromised a fully patched OS X machine in seconds at CanSecWest, the annual applied digital security conference held in Vancouver earlier this month. Miller has some pretty devastating things to say about OS X in an interview on security evangelist Ryan Naraine's blog.

The things that Windows do to make it harder (for an exploit to work), Macs don't do. Hacking into Macs is so much easier. You don't have to jump through hoops and deal with all the anti-exploit mitigations you'd find in Windows. It's more about the operating system than the (target) program. Firefox on Mac is pretty easy too. The underlying OS doesn't have anti-exploit stuff built into it.

Ouch. That's some serious criticism for an OS that Apple would like businesses to adopt.Poor old Apple then. Its sales proposition seems to come down to this:

  • Windows is for boring business people, while OS X is for everyone else. Unless they want to play games. Or they don't want to pay inflated prices. Or they notice that there are far, far more applications to choose from on a PC than there are on a Mac.
  • OS X can do business too — but not as well as a PC. But don't worry, you can buy Windows and run it on your Mac. Then it's just as good as a PC, just much more expensive.
  • OS X is really secure, although actually it turns out that it's not ...

So it's not really that surprising Reuters reported unit sales of computers running OS X fell 16 percent in February, according to research group NPD, while Windows PC sales leaped 22 percent. Within that overall figure, MacBook laptops dropped 7 percent, while Windows laptops rose 16 percent. Windows desktops had a hard time in February, with sales down 10 percent, but OS X suffered even more with unit sales down a staggering 36 percent.

Apple has been stuck with a single digit market share for ages, but recently it seemed it might creep in to double figures. Now it seems computer buyers' brief crush on OS X may be over. Given that Macs aren't that fun, they're not that good at business, they are not that cheap, and they are not that secure, it's not that hard to see why.

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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