Mr. Ballmer Is On To Something

In a recent article Media.Summit.New.York Steve Ballmer said the following:

Apple gained about one point, but now I think the tide has really turned back the other direction. The economy is helpful. Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment—same piece of hardware—paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that’s a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be.

You can find the aptly titled article Ballmer: Apple logo costs $500

Not that Mr. Ballmer 1 is right on every point – I liked his little tirade about the iPhone being the most expensive phone on the market and how it will never gain any market share. He was in a tight spot, he is the head of Microsoft, and he couldn’t very well go around saying that the iPhone is a great piece of technology now could he? As we all know, you can’t always be correct.My apologies – the above was a cheap shot – I may be able to realise that it was a cheap shop, but I am still cheap enough to let it stay in this piece.

On the ‘$500 logo’ point he is 100% correct, unfortunately this is not going to save the day for Microsoft, which I will explain soon.

I Like My Mac

Let me start by saying that I use Apple’s Mac OS X pretty much exclusively these days, dropping into Windows XP on Parallels on the now very infrequent occasion2.

In my time I normally coded on a Windows environment, although I did keep a Mac around on the desktop to test out various site, use it for my feed reading, external mail etc.

Why I Needed Windows

Mr. Jobs here has it wrong when he said (Para-phrase ahead)

Nobody reads anymore

Well, I am a ‘nobody’ and I still read a lot, I received a Sony eReader PRS-505 for Christmas and I cannot tell you how enamoured I am with it. Yes, it doesn’t have the WiFi of the Kindle, nor can I annotate or search, however I was looking for a dead-tree book replacement and the Sony eReader fits the bill perfectly. I don’t want to surf the web, read RSS feeds, download books over the air or anything else of the sort. I have filled it with about 100 books whilst tethered to my computer and I will read them from front to back.

Moving on here, the Sony eReader’s software only supports Windows – hence my need to drop into Parallels on the odd occasion. For some unknown reason, it stopped working and no matter what I tried to do, Windows no longer recognises the device when the eReader is attached. Of course, this is not your typical solution, It is running through Parallels on a Mac machine – the key here is that it used to work.

After much pulling of cables, detaching and attaching of USB devices, clicking on all sorts of notification bubbles, re-installation of software and restarting of the machine, the operating system and the application – nada, zip, nothing.

In search of a solution, I came across the Calibre Reader library. This does everything that I need for the eReader, and has support for a multitude of other eBook readers on the market (Kindle included). Perfect! Whilst the interface could do with some tidying up, I no longer have to drop into Windows, and haven’t for quite a while now.

So that is why I needed (note the past tense now) Windows. I still keep windows around to test out Internet Explorer now and again, however there are problems with it which I will explain right at the end of the post.

This is the important part:

Despite what the Apple PR machine churned out, you couldn’t always find applications that you needed for the Macintosh platform. These days, with the burgeoning Apple developer community, coupled with the a lot of the cross-platform *NIX applications, you can now generally find programmes for what you want to do on a Mac.

Why Other People Buy Vista

My sister has been looking for a laptop for some time now, despite my gentle coercions, she didn’t buy an Apple Mac. For this very simple reason:

I am trying to save money, I can’t afford it.

Well done Mr. Ballmer, you hit the nail right on the head with this one. I didn’t push, I don’t really mind which operating system she uses, however I did say that the technical support would be limited as I have never used Vista, she agreed, bought the thing and promptly dropped the laptop over to me a couple of days later.

Incidentally the general specs for the machine were:

  • 3Gb RAM
  • 15.4″ screen (When are we going to go metric with these things?)
  • 1.84GHz Core 2 Duo processor
  • 180Gb Hard drive.
  • £449 (with a free crap-tacular carry bag!)

The cheapest MacBook is £719 – with less specs than the above.

So, Mr. Ballmer, you are on to something here.

Which Operating System Now?

To get the most out of Vista, these were my sister’s requirements:

  • Photo Management Tool
  • Internet Browser
  • Office Suite Software
  • Music Management Software
  • Instant Messaging Client

So, I recommended the following for her:

  • Google Picassa 3
  • Firefox 3 and Safari and Chrome!
  • OpenOffice
  • iTunes
  • Trillian

Do you notice something odd about the above list?

Yes, not one of the listed applications was a Microsoft one. To my surprise, the first thing that my sister did when she received the computer, was to open up Internet Explorer, searched on Google for Firefox and download it. (She clicked on a wrong button for the Firewall and it didn’t allow Firefox to connect to the internet – which I duly fixed).

I do like your current tag line “Your Potential. Our Passion” 3, unfortunately my sister’s potential is being funneled and realised through the use of Open Source software. To say that you are powering her potential is like saying the UK Government’s Road System is powering her car, she’s just using the roads to get where she wants to go.

Note that all of the above applications are available on the Mac – or have an equivalent either built in or readily available (I like iPhoto for the Image management software and Adium for the Instant Messenger client)

So, yes, Mr. Ballmer, you got your money out of my sister for Windows Vista (chalk up yet another sale). The lesson here is that she is starting to lean away from Microsoft, seeing that any ‘Operating System’ is just something which enables her to get the things done that she needs. Since the Windows operating system doesn’t offer her anything she cannot get elsewhere, her thoughts are now turning to other intangible measures like beauty, ease of use, prestige…

Already having moved away from nearly all Microsoft software, it is only time until she doesn’t need you at all. She likes the Mac, she loves the dock and one day she will buy a Mac.

As they say

Once you’ve had Mac, you never go back.

Now this part is very important:

It is not about whether or not my sister bought a Windows machine. It is that she knows about the Macintosh and seriously considered it.

Six or so years ago and there wouldn’t have been any questions about what operating system to buy – It would have been Windows – and I would have endorsed it whole-heartedly 4.

Now on to the enterprise.

The Enterprise and the State of the Mac

The enterprise is where Microsoft will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future and I have no problems with that. Microsoft is actively thinking about the enterprise, for example I like Active Directory, it does make it easier to manage a large set of workstations – I am not sure of the Apple and Linux equivalents or if they even exist.

Things are changing though.

Anecdotally:

A friend of mine works for a large private start-up, which is constantly on the look-out for people with Windows Server experience, and NOT Linux experience. This is simply because the majority of the candidates that they interview already have the Linux experience. Not that many candidates have bothered to learn about Windows Server.

“Why?” you may ask: Linux is freely available and costs nothing.

Conversely to run up a Windows Server 2003 instance, this will cost you money Windows Server 2003 for around £473 (this is about $694 of your money) – I guess you could say that you are paying for that lovely ‘Windows Server 2003 Capable’ sticker on the box. I don’t want to get started on the fact that this only support five (yes 5) client access licenses (CALs), as a previous boss of mine once said a CAL is a Microsoft tax on the wire that connects to it.

Another company that I know of offers you the choice of a MacPro, or a high end Windows Machine. It doesn’t matter which one is chosen.

Can you see the shift in the industry…

It starts off as a small tiny speck, so small you can only just see it out of the side of your eye and vanishes when you try to pinpoint it…

The problem that you have, Mr. Ballmer, is that people like those above, should they ever get in a position of influence will do the following:

  1. Use Linux servers for their websites
  2. Use Zimbra (or equivalent) for their mail server
  3. Use OpenOffice on the desktop
  4. Use MySQL for the databases – alternatively they will pay for Oracle.

With all the savings that they just made on the above list and assuming that they didn’t choose Linux as their workstation, I am sure that they can find the extra $500 to buy a shiny new Apple Mac. They will probably even get a payrise for all of the money that they saved the company.

And that, Mr. Ballmer, is the problem you are going to face in the next 10 to 20 years. It will be an avalanche, the $500 price tag will always be a concern, but there will be more good times, the money will continue to flow, the differential will seem less and people will eventually stop buying your products.

Finally – in all honesty – the Mac is cheaper than a Windows machine – just from the maintenance that I don’t have to do on my Mac, compared to what I have to do to my Windows installation 5. I know that there are powerpoint presentations which say the opposite. That 10 minute ‘dazzling’ presentation is no substitute for two decades of experience of using computers that I have – and yes at one point in time I loved your products as well – I remember buying Windows 95 and installing it and thought that the future had finally arrived 6

On Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer is irrelevant – it has been said before and it will be said again. There is nothing particularly wrong with IE from a user’s perspective, it works, it browses the net. From a developer’s perspective it is fine, there are plugins to help me do my job, I just have to jump through hoops to get IE6, IE7 and now IE8 to work on the same system. Either that or I buy three licenses to Windows Vista/XP and run up three Parallels instances to test it. In this case, your price, Mr. Ballmer, is too high to pay for a simple web browser.

The reason why IE is irrelevant is a perception thing. People are moving away from Internet Explorer to Firefox. The message that they here is that “Firefox is more secure.” And they are hearing it in two ways, both through the press and anecdotally through their peers and friends.

With IE, all you hear is that “IE is secure – look at the latest data that says that we fix bugs quicker than Firefox. That we had less bugs for Q3 of 2008 7.”. This message only comes through the press, when was the last time that your friends have told you “You should use IE, it is more secure than Firefox/Safari/Chrome/Opera 8. The only message they hear about IE is from the press (and most people suspect that Microsoft is paying them to say it anyhow).

The truth is that IE was full of security holes, Microsoft let it lag for far too long. If you really cared about your customers, you would have given IE a higher priority. Once you had solidified your position through illegal tying of the Operating System and the browser (Remember, you were actually convicted of this.), you dumped any work on it.

In the end, Mr. Ballmer, people don’t like bullies, and would probably pay an extra $1,000 just to spite them. They do say “the best revenge is living well”, that is why I bought a Mac.

Footnotes:

  1. And I am using the formal title, as I have never been introduced
  2. Getting more infrequent with every passing day
  3. Registered Trademark of Microsoft Corporation
  4. Linux wasn’t ready then, and still isn’t ready
  5. It costs me $100 a year just for the anti-virus and firewall
  6. I was young and naive back then.
  7. Or whatever!
  8. I insert Opera for completeness, I like Opera, I just don’t use it.

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