Why Microsoft should fear Apple

Apple has gotten smarter about how it competes with Microsoft

Should Microsoft fear Apple's Macintosh? Maybe not quaking-in-your-boots scared, mind you, but Redmond should certainly be concerned.

I'll tell you why. Apple has gotten smarter about how it competes with Microsoft. Clearly the underdog, Apple has to make moves that can be seen as both supportive of the Windows marketplace and good for its Mac customers at the same time.

The switch to Intel was just such a chess move. Intel hardware makes it easier for Microsoft to create apps for the Mac. It solves a performance problem Apple had. It creates a better experience for Intel-Mac owners because it better supports Windows applications. The CPU architecture also puts Mac and Windows hardware on an easy-to-understand, level playing field. Perhaps most significantly, though, all these advantages appeal to potentially millions of Mac-curious Windows users because it makes the Mac more familiar.

For the first time in its 23-year history, the Mac is finally able to move fluidly into and out of the world of Microsoft Windows and its applications -- both in the workplace and at home. Microsoft's own Office suite plays a big role in that. Microsoft's commitment to Office 2008 for the Mac lends additional support.

But the untapped source for the Mac is software designed for Windows. VMware is offering a public beta of its Fusion virtualization product for the Mac; the final release is due this summer. In the meantime, it's the Parallels Desktop software that has been truly transformational for the Mac.

Parallels isn't just an easy-to-use virtualization utility for running Windows on the Mac. The company's Coherence feature lets Windows apps run in an all but invisible Windows instance on your Mac. They look for all the world like they're running on your Mac, not in Windows. Parallels also makes it easy to switch back and forth between a full-screen version of Windows and your full-screen Mac. And Windows XP runs flawlessly on the Mac in Parallels. (Parallels also supports Vista, but not the Aero interface, yet.)

For people who haven't tried it recently, the most surprising thing about the Mac in 2007 is that software is simply not a problem. Most average Windows users have no idea how rich a software base the Mac has grown in recent years. With convenient access to Windows applications, as well as access to an intriguing, growing market of Mac-specific software, finding great software that runs on the Mac is easier than ever before.

That insidious Macintosh

OK, so full disclosure: I am a recent Mac convert. But before you chalk me up as an apple-eyed Mac fanboy, I'm not your average Windows-to-Mac switcher. No one knows better than me (well, maybe Microsoft's accountants) how firm a grip on the computer industry Microsoft has. As a Windows reviewer since almost the beginning of Windows (my first tests were of Windows 2.11), I have no illusions about Microsoft's market lock.

If the Mac or any other desktop OS were to truly put a dent in Microsoft's desktop market share, it would take 15 years for Windows to "die." And that's assuming Microsoft stood still and did nothing. In other words, it ain't gonna happen.

I also don't hate Microsoft. I'm not a fanatic. I'm just someone who recognizes a good thing when he sees it. I undertook a simple three-month trial of the Mac last autumn, with no intention of sticking around, and realized four months later that I wasn't going back.

But here's the kicker: I am very definitely not alone. A lot of people who were previously confirmed Windows users have given the Mac a try over the last year. Windows Vista is the most ambitious version of Windows since Windows 95, but it's far less compelling than Windows 95 was. Vista isn't a bad product; it's just not a great one. After six years of waiting, it was time for something significantly better. We didn't get it.

Because I made the switch recently, and did so publicly, I've gotten hundreds of messages from Computerworld readers (as well as readers of my personal newsletter, Scot's Newsletter) informing me that they, too, switched to the Mac recently. Many are IT people. Some confess that they manage Windows users by day, and run Macs at home. Others tell me that they've switched in the office, and it's no big deal. The all-but-universal experience is that the transition was much easier than expected, and that using the Mac has made switchers more productive.

What's especially intriguing to me is that many IT managers have reported that execs of all stripes are switching to the Mac at their companies. I've seen the same phenomenon. At my company, three very highly placed execs have used Macs for many years. The vast majority of people have used Windows. Over the course of the last year, however, several new Mac users have appeared, including three in my area of the company. Mac users are beginning to come out of the woodwork. And the word is spreading that it's OK to do that.

So, while I don't think Microsoft has anything to fear in the market share department, when it comes to mind share, it has a lot to lose. The Mac is experiencing a renaissance. It's about Intel inside. It's about Unix at the core. It's about virtualization technology. It's about the surprising availability of software. It's about a superior operating system, and attractive hardware. It's about serious buzz.

People are talking about the Mac throughout the industry. Admit it: Whether you love it or hate it, you're talking about the Mac at the water cooler. Many IT pros tend to laugh up their sleeves about how expensive and eccentric Macs are. But they're still talking. It's one of the top 10 technology stories of the year.

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Scot Finnie

Computerworld
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