Windows Partisans Don't Get It

Last week's release of Windows 7 has some Windows defenders rubbing their virtual hands at the prospect of Microsoft delivering a knockout blow to Apple. But their arguments reveal that they don't understand why SMBs and consumers have been embracing the Mac in increasing numbers.
Last week's release of Windows 7 has some Windows defenders rubbing their virtual hands at the prospect of Microsoft delivering a knockout blow to Apple. But their arguments reveal that they don't understand why SMBs and consumers have been embracing the Mac in increasing numbers.There's something about the Mac that gets under the skin of a lot of Windows users. (I won't call them "fans" -- does Windows really have "fans"?) Rather than taking a live-and-let-live attitude that sees the world of technology as big enough for more than one computing platform, they seem to wish that the Mac would just go away and its users, I guess, be forced by circumstances into falling in line with the majority.

The generally positive reaction to the release of Windows 7 has provided the opportunity for more pundits to propose a dance on Apple's grave. The new "I'm a Mac" ads in particular seem to have gotten under their skin with the suggestion that now might be a good time to switch. As I've written about elsewhere, it's clear that Apple hopes to peel off some of the people who are faced with buying a new computer in order to upgrade to Windows 7, as even PC magazines suggest XP users do.

But the anti-Mac fervor seems a little overwrought coming from people defending the most popular OS in the world (as they're quick to remind us) -- it's a little like Yankees fans trash-talking the A's. Heck, even Apple acknowledges that they're no real competition for Microsoft; senior vice president Phil Schiller recently told Business Week, "No matter how you look at it, it's still Windows. When all is said and done, the Mac picks up share a bit at a time."

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In Forbes, Brian Caulfield launches his "the Mac is dead" column by making fun of the latest Apple ads. He then cites "Apple online jihadists" who have suggested that Apple missed an opportunity by failing to strike a deal to permit OS X and OS X server to run on specially approved PC hardware. That's an interesting idea, but Caulfield takes it as evidence that "Apple has already blown it" as far as attracting more Windows users goes. After reviewing recent figures on the growth of Mac marketshare, he asserts that "the worry is Apple will sidle away from a computer business it can never dominate" as it moves further into non-computer devices, like phones.

Now, Caulfield doesn't say who has expressed that fear -- certainly, I haven't heard it at the meetings of my local jihadist cell. I did write recently that Apple was uniquely positioned to create the first post-netbook device, a position I see no reason to reconsider, but I certainly didn't mean to imply it would replace the Mac. To be fair, it's almost certainly true that Mac profit margins are becoming thinner, and Caulfield isn't the only person to make the argument that Apple will eventually decide they're too thin to pursue. But no one really knows at what price point that would occur, much less whether Apple will keep cutting prices that far. It seems contradictory to me that on the one hand, PC loyalists will argue that Mac buyers are overpaying for generic PC hardware, while at the same time Dell, HP, and others manage to make money while charging less for that same hardware.

David Coursey, writing in PC World, takes a harder line -- he wants to see Microsoft attack Apple directly in their ads. He mentions the Verizon/Droid "iDon't" commercial, which indeed is strong and effective. The problem for Microsoft is, what are they going to say that Windows can do that the Mac can't? Coursey mentions Apple's weakness in enterprise computing -- oh yeah, that'll make a compelling ad campaign! He also suggests such selling points as the Gates Foundation's charitable activities, as though people will choose PCs so they can give Bill more money to spread around.

Coursey is correct when he writes, "One of the advantages Apple has is the lack of the need to be all things to all potential customers....Microsoft, on the other hand, strives to be everyone's computer company. Its operating systems have to work as well in big enterprises as they do for a six-year-old. That is why Microsoft's task is exponentially more difficult than Apple's." Yes, and it's also why, if you're not a big enterprise, Apple can claim to offer you a better experience than Windows. Coursey might as well have written, "Microsoft has to make compromises across the board. Apple doesn't."

What's happening is that, even in business, the needs of big enterprises aren't the sole driver of computer buying decisions any more. Coursey acknowledges this phenomenon in passing: "Technology pros need to understand that [computer ads] are not aimed at us. What used to be a cozy 'world of tech' has expanded to become the same wild world everyone else lives in." But he misses the corollary that the world everyone else lives in prizes experience as highly as specs and appearance as much as functionality. I've always been bemused by the way some Windows partisans sneer at Macs for being "pretty" and at the idea that a computer can be "fun to use." Those may be negatives in the "world of tech," but not in the world everyone else lives in.

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The success of the Mac has a lot to do with the consumerization of business technology that bMighty has addressed several times. Steve Hilton wrote in an Ask Steve column last August, "Consumerization of the enterprise will lead to many changes in technology deployment for SMBs. We've talked about connected devices in this Ask Steve, but the implications impact mobile devices, PCs, virtualized environments, cloud computing, UC, video-based applications, and more." He's talking about the effect of consumer technology, but his insight also applies to the effect of consumer preference. These days, employees enter the workforce expecting to have a say in what computer they use, and with the advent of browser-based applications and cloud computing, meeting that expectation is becoming ever easier. So marketing computers on their consumer-oriented qualities is also a way of promoting them for business, except in those environments where a specific technology is critical. But those environments are more likely to be large enterprises than small and midsize businesses. As my colleague Fredric Paul has written, "Smaller companies are uniquely positioned to take advantages of these technological changes. Unlike large companies, they're not bound with massive legacy investments in old technology, or burdened with protecting massive but eroding revenue streams."

Apple old position as "the computer for the rest of us" can work for business now more than ever, because the rest of us are having an increasing say in what platforms we use for work. Microsoft may have a story to tell with Windows 7, but to deal a knockout blow to Apple, that story is going to have to sound like Apple's -- to sound like "you'll like us better." And that's going to be a tough one.