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Linux vs. Windows Vista vs. Leopard

By Rob Enderle
May 1, 2006 5:00 AM PT

I mentioned last week that I was planning to attend the Linspire-sponsored Linux Desktop Summit where the discussion would include reasons the folks who build PCs don't want to do Linux. Indeed, some of the commentary at the event related to Microsoft and its vulnerability when it comes to large business and government accounts because:

  • Its product, Vista, is a major change;
  • The product is late and not feature complete;
  • Microsoft has lost the trust of key partners and customers.

There was also a lot of discussion about what Linux should become, with some of the most interesting commentary coming from Geoffrey Moore, author of "Crossing the Chasm," who was right on in stating that Linux is going in the wrong direction with respect to the desktop.

There was little mention of the Mac OS at the conference, yet, given the success of Linux against Unix (the Mac OS has Unix at its core) you would think that platform might make a better first target for Linux than Windows would.

Linux vs. Windows Vista vs. Leopard

Windows' Past Could Offer Lessons for Linux's Future

It was as fascinating to learn that Moore was an avid Linux supporter as it was to learn that he felt strongly it was on the wrong path for the desktop. He went into great detail as to how he felt that Microsoft was, like many of the large companies that hire him to consult, a dinosaur trying unsuccessfully to be fast moving and trendy again. He clearly felt that the company was vulnerable -- but not to Linux, considering what this system's desktop path seems to be.

Moore pointed out that things move slowly and that a good place to look for ideas for future products is among kids and young people -- and what they are currently using. Today kids are using devices like cell phones and iPods, often juggling several gadgets running at once. These devices are not all-in-ones, rather they're specialized to whatever the user wants to do. In short, they're nearly the opposite of what Windows currently is. What does that mean? It means Windows might be a poor model for future products. Future products probably won't be running on anything that looks like today's Windows.

All of this reminded me of the way in which Windows came about. Back in the 1980s, IBM's dominance was based on mainframes, and this firm was more powerful in its day than Microsoft is today. Companies like Fujitsu, Hitachi and Digital tried to make a better mainframe product than IBM. Digital even changed its name to "DEC" so it kind of looked like "IBM." Several firms actually attempted to steal IBM's proprietary technology so they could build competing products that they'd offer at lower prices.

Often people seem to think that just because they can sell something cheaper they have a major competitive advantage. For software, in particular, price is just one factor -- but it's often far from the most compelling.

As a result of focusing intently on price and IBM these folks fought over about 10 percent of the market. Some were successful in peripherals or emerging markets, but IBM actually remained dominant in mainframes.

In contrast, Microsoft, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard grew, not by making a better mainframe, but by helping to create and ride the next wave, personal computers. This was a wave Apple started but couldn't ride itself. IBM couldn't move fast enough, often crippled its own products to protect existing revenue streams and recently exited the PC market after admitting it couldn't compete.

Seeing Clearly

Recall that Microsoft not only didn't initially target IBM as a competitor but partnered with it in order to gain faster entry into the market. In fact IBM still maintains one of the largest Microsoft services organizations in the world. While it may be hard to remember now, Microsoft at one time focused on the opportunity and the customer -- not Netscape, or Google, or internal politics. As a result, Microsoft benefited when IBM's geriatric behavior caught up with it.

For the Linux set, focusing on Microsoft and Windows might mean those players will mirror the experiences of IBM's traditional competitors like Digital and face a similar end. To win, they need to focus not on where the market was, but where it is going, and they should do everything in their power to get there first even if that means finding a way to partner with Microsoft.

Shortly after the show last week I saw this post on the Groklaw Web site which advocates a boycott of Linux distributions and the hardware vendors who use them when FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) rules are not followed to the letter. This smacks of religious elitism -- and boycotts scare the hell out of hardware vendors, IT buyers, and consumers alike. As a result I have to wonder if it is even possible for Linux proponents to stop the infighting long enough to even think about the future, let alone get there first.

Mac OS Leopard: Feature Complete Vista?

No one seems to talk much about Apple Leopard, the next version of the Mac OS. This is primarily because Apple, unlike Microsoft, is not talking about this next generation platform publicly. Based on comments by Apple chief Steve Jobs it was slated to roll out about the same time as Vista originally was, but if what I'm reading is right, it too has run into problems and won't show up until late 2007. This OS was largely modeled after what Vista was going to be. However, unlike Microsoft, Apple did not cut features to make the 2006 date, a date that Microsoft has now missed anyway. As result, Leopard may look a lot like what Vista was promised to be and, based on how Apple developed the iPod, it may also be capable of building a media center offering that works.

One of the interesting features expected to be included in Leopard is a true hardware virtualization layer, probably at least partially leveraging Intel's LG technology which should be nearly fully cooked by that time. Virtualization was supposed to be included in Windows Vista but it too slipped out of the product. As many have pointed out, virtualization could be a vastly more palatable way to gain Windows compatibility than Apple's Boot Camp now is.

One lesson that may come out of this is that removing a feature to make a deadline is a bad idea because there are dependencies that break -- and this breakage can dramatically reduce, if not eliminate, the time savings such a decision was expected to create. In addition, it makes the product look crippled -- and crippled products don't sell well. If the right people observe and learn this lesson it may result in better and timelier software products going forward from a lot of companies.

Despite all this, if this Leopard vs. Vista scenario plays out this will place the most competitive Mac OS in history -- on aggressively designed Intel based hardware -- against what may be the most competitively exposed Microsoft desktop OS since Windows Millennium Edition in the market, in the fourth quarter of 2007.

If Apple can't at least double its small share during this unique event it should abandon the Mac OS as a dead end, because this kind of opportunity will never come again.

If it does double share, which it could do by cutting a broad swath through the consumer market with a well designed media center-like product, it could dramatically change the market and remind the Linux folks that the desktop isn't about FOSS -- it's about selling the products consumers want to buy.

Looking Ahead: 2008

2008 will be a critical year for Apple, Microsoft, and the Linux contingent. If Apple can't significantly expand its presence by then in the PC market it is likely going to be finished with this segment. Its likely path in that case will be to focus more aggressively on the consumer electronics market it currently dominates.

If the Linux set can't get over its internal problems it will be bypassed, likely by something else that better blends proprietary and open source components into solutions that more accurately meet the emerging needs for appliance-like products real people want to buy. If Microsoft can't find a way to become agile and customer focused again it will clearly be on the long slow path that IBM blazed -- and that Sun is already reaching the end of.

There is potential for 2008 to be a year of change, both positive and negative, for Microsoft, Apple and Linux. This is history in the making for all three entities and we are getting a chance to witness it.

The outcome will have a great deal to do with the quality of the decisions all parties make this year. The first decision all should make is to focus unwaveringly on their customers -- if they can figure out who they really are. Of the three entities, the only one that appears to clearly understands this, so far, is Apple.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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