Tale of the Tape

June 9, 2012 - Measuring Microsoft Against Apple

I was finally pushed over the edge a few months ago when in a single day I was besieged with claims, from friends and the press, about the superiority of Apple in general and the Mac in specific. For years these things have bounced right off me without affecting my good nature or smile. This time, not so much. I felt myself getting just a bit angry.

Apple makes great products. I have an iPod and Mac Mini, I like the iPhone, and I acknowledge the effectiveness of the iPad marketing campaign. It is also interesting to watch Apple push its mobile operating system, iOS, so brilliantly. After all, it is hardly OS X or Windows or even Linux - it is a system tailored to the very specific, very niche needs of a device with limited capability.

iOwners will no doubt find that last statement horrifying. They will rightly retort that their iPhones and iPads are perfectly capable and doing just what they need. That, of course, is the brilliance of Apple marketing. But in the chaos, Apple has managed to downplay the fact that iOS is nowhere near as capable as its OS X or Windows brethren. I don't have a problem with that; my aging Palm Centro phone has all the power it needs to do what it does.

So what's my gripe? I just think Apple gets too much credit and Microsoft gets too little. Here are a few observations.

Backwards Compatibility

I have an old desktop PC. I think I built it around 2002 and upgraded the motherboard two years later. So call it a 2004-era PC. I also have a Mac Mini, circa 2008.

The aged PC meets the minimum system requirements for Windows 7. While I don't plan to upgrade it, I could. And I could perform the upgrade without making any hardware upgrades of any kind.

The much newer Mac Mini does not meet the minimum system requirements for Lion. It does have a Core 2 Duo. It's short RAM, 1GB instead of 2; of course, my model is not supposed to be user-serviceable, making memory upgrades challenging. My Mini is also tight on hard disk space; although Snow Leopard freed up space over Leopard, reports are that Lion requires more. The original two Intel-based models of the Mini are out of luck, lacking the Core 2 Duo. So unless I put in more RAM and buy a larger hard disk, my Mac Mini is end of life or, at the very least, end of Apple caring.

My MS-DOS version of the venerable game Air Traffic Controller runs in every version of Windows despite not having been recompiled since 1983. Visual Basic 6, released in 1998, runs in every version of Windows since, including 7.

These days you're lucky to find any software that runs on pre-Intel Macs. Apple's certainly doesn't.

Microsoft wins the backward compatility contest hands down. Put another way, if you invest in Microsoft solutions, they are likely to have a very long life. For Apple it's reasonable to assume a useful life of four years for Macs and probably two for iOS consumer devices.

Security

For years, it has been stated as fact that Apple's software was all but invulnerable to cyber attack. This has never been true, just as it has never been true for any system. Again, Apple has been very clever about this. I cannot recall a single instance in which Apple actually claimed this high ground, but the trade press and popular opinion states it as fact while Apple remains mute.

Recent events make clear that this is not true, as serious threats to Mac OS X have finally caught the attention of the press. Security firms have sprung into action with protection products, which must have been on the shelf for a long time just waiting for a turn of opinion.

Mac was simply not much of a target in the past because it represented a very small target. While that has not changed, another Apple product family is vastly larger - iOS. I believe Mac attacks are simply the tip of the iceberg - imagine the havoc if iPhones are compromised. Given that smartphones of all stripes are becoming primary computing devices and, worse, handling money and personal information, you can count on a rising level of attacks.

I feel certain that Apple is working behind the scenes on all these security issues. It remains to be seen if it can stay ahead of the curve but I have to believe it recognizes the enormity of a serious breach to its brushed aluminum reputation.

Nevertheless, it has been far less proactive than Microsoft in this regard. Microsoft has its own, excellent product line of security products and makes the core of that line available to consumers and very small businesses at no charge. Its enterprise line competes directly with the third parties usually given the nod as the best. When a serious problem emerges, such as the recent Flame, Microsoft has been known to respond almost instantly and outside its normal patch schedule.

This is a far different picture than the Apple-lovin' public wants to acknowledge.

Software

Does it just "run better?" I don't think so.

First, the Mac operating system. There's no question that in the early days the Mac graphical user interface (GUI) held an edge over the PC. It was certainly more attractive. Nonetheless, Windows gained parity at least 15 years ago with Windows 95 and, as far as I'm concerned, has held it ever since. With Windows 7, Microsoft established parity in appearance as well.

Many observers confuse simple with easy to use. They are different. Since Windows 3, I think Windows has been just as easy to use as a Mac but I also think Windows has always been more complete, with a much larger total feature set. Overall, I think Windows itself has been ahead on the usability and effectiveness curve for at least a decade, probably much longer.

But aside from the operating system, its GUI, and the core, basic applications that come with it, most other software is built by third parties. When using such third-party apps, I can find little difference in usability or feature between Mac and Windows. I see this clearly all the time, in reviews of applications in which little difference is noted.

Meanwhile, Mac apps are effectively subsidized by the massively larger Windows market. Do you think Adobe sells more Mac or Windows product? Products available only for the Mac usually cost more than their equivalent PC counterpart.

From time to time, a particular app will garner special attention for its excellent or clever features. This happens for both Mac and Windows; give each their due. But generally speaking, there is no signficant difference in the quality, usability, productivity, or effectiveness of applications available for both Mac and Windows.

What about reliability? Is Mac software better? That is a frequent note I hear from the Apple faithful. But remember, I have a Mac. I use it regularly. I've had just as many crashes or other difficulties with it as I have with Windows XP. People often tell me that they have their Mac on for days at a time and never experience a problem. I've had exactly the same experience with my venerable laptop. If there have been reliability problems with PCs I've owned, they have been hardware related, not software difficulties.

Hardware

Where design is concerned, Apple really shines. Its products always look great. See anything from Microsoft at MOMA?

Well, of course not. Microsoft doesn't build computers and so far its game system, XBox, has not made that particular cut. Microsoft's 1992 mouse, designed by Steven Kaneko, is in the MOMA collection but not on display. However, it is credited to Kaneko, not to Microsoft.

But what about function? Is that $999 MacBook $300 better than that $699 HP laptop? Is it built better? Does it work better? Will it last longer?

Those are interesting questions. Aside from deciding whether an aluminum body and an integral battery set Apple's laptops apart, the rest of the components of the system mostly come from same place - the Pacific rim. For the last few years the processors are the same, so that isn't a differentiating factor.

I admit to not having all the answers. Arguments can be made either way. My wife's $900 HP laptop lost its WiFi card after about 14 months and died altogether in three years while my ThinkPad is six years old and running strong (okay, it's showing signs of age these days). A friend has been through two MacBooks while I've used my single ThinkPad; I've been able to upgrade economically while he upgraded by buying a new system and he's spent more money in the process, even in adjusted dollars.

But the bottom line is that this is hardly an argument against Microsoft. Windows runs on systems high and low. It runs very well on those low systems, too. And neither can hardware failures in cheap systems be laid on Microsoft's doorstep. My wife's piece of junk came from HP, not from Microsoft.

Market Share

Everyone knows this. Overall Mac market share is tiny. Call it 5% to be generous.

Once again, I can hear howls of protest from the Apple faithful. Their point will be valid - Mac market share grew steadily in recent years. But the reason has little to do with Mac. The enormous success of the iFamily line of products, first iPod and then iPhone, brought customers into Apple's stores in droves. Other Apple products rubbed off. It was a perfect storm. That was followed by the absolutely brilliant Mac vs. PC TV ad campaign, which exploited Microsoft's perceived difficulties in the Vista era.

Those effects have worn off, for a combination of reasons. There can be no question that the iPad is cutting in to low-end MacBook sales. Add to that our terrible economy for the past couple of years and the premium positioning of the Mac line puts it at a distinct disadvantage. Apple's growth and valuation comes from iOS-based products, not Macintosh.

Meanwhile, Windows 7 is doing extremely well (and for the best of all reasons - it is good). Microsoft's other product lines remain strong - server software, productivity software, game systems, game software, etc.

Can this be because Microsoft has somehow done a bad job? I simply cannot reconcile such oft-repeated negatives about Microsoft with what I see every day - in stores, working with clients, and studying the market.

Which is not to say that Apple has done a bad job. I think it realized a long time ago that direct competition with the Windows world was going to be a long, difficult slog and that it could not get down in the mud with hardware and maintain its desired profit margin. Its consumer products have provided the growth, revenue and margin that even Steve Jobs' brilliantly re-incarnated Macs could not sustain, to the point that the consumer line is now the vast majority of its revenues and profits. Apple has even dropped its hard-core server products and is often rumored to be dropping the Mac Pro, its only remaining tower PC. (As I write this, rumors say there will be a new Pro.)

This means that Apple has done a great job on its mass market products but has more or less capitulated in the market space dominated by Microsoft and its hardware partners.

Conclusion

Do you buy orange juice or ice cream? Me, too. The same thing happened to both products in the last decade, maybe earlier, and they completely escaped my attention in the moment. In both cases, packaging changed, with hoopla from the manufacturers touting some new feature. But lost in the shuffle was an effective price increase because, in both cases, the amount of product in the container was reduced.

I'd been buying half-gallon boxes of ice cream since I was a kid. Suddenly, there were new packages with tops and a shapely container. Oops. That container held not 1/2 but instead 3/8 of a gallon. The artistry of the change was brilliant; I just didn't notice.

Same for OJ. The milk-box half-gallon was endemic. Suddenly Tropicana had a plastic bottle with pitcher qualities, something of a knock-off of it's larger plastic containers. Oops. Only 59 ounces. In short order the milk-box also got smaller by 5 ounces but it is very difficult to notice that.

It's all marketing, packaging, and perception driven by branding. And that is Apple to a tee. Brilliant, no question. Microsoft is simply not in the same class and it pays the price for this time and time again.

Look below that slick surface and the story is much different. Microsoft has been delivering solid, powerful product for decades, year after year, and owns dramatic market share in each of its key markets. Apple? It's in consumer mode now, which means fast product refresh to keep the attention of all those young kids. That fast refresh means short product life.

I can get excited by exciting products; I'm not immune. But I am immune to claims that Apple somehow occupies a higher plane than Microsoft. It's just not true.

Tags: Apple, Mac OS X, Microsoft, Windows

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