Windows Versus the World

With regard to my hypothesis on Monday that security problems are driving regular people to consider switching to something other than Windows, there are three things I ought to clarify:

  1. I’m not predicting mass exodus or abandonment — not even the end of the Windows monopoly. What I’m talking about is a subtle change in momentum — a handful of market share percentage points.

  2. I’m talking specifically about regular people, not nerds or even semi-nerds. Here’s a simple “regular person” test: Can you explain the difference between RAM and a hard disk? The vast majority of computer users can’t; these are the regular people I’m talking about.

  3. This is not about Mac-vs.-Windows (or Apple-vs.-Microsoft). If I’m right, it would be very good news indeed for Apple. But that’s not to say every one of these Windows refugees would wind up buying a Mac — in fact, quite the opposite, I would expect the vast majority to switch to some flavor of desktop Linux.

So then, what’s the big deal?

Well, as for #1, Windows has never really suffered a loss in momentum. Its market share has only ever gone in one direction: up. Losing 5 or even 10 percent of the home market isn’t going to bankrupt Microsoft, but it’s something that’s never happened before.

However, it does nicely dovetail with the situation regarding Internet Explorer, which after years of going nowhere but up — possessing upwards of 95 percent of the web browser market at its peak — has actually started to cede a few percentage points to Firefox and Opera.

As for #2, that these potential Windows refugees are regular people, this too is new. Most regular people don’t even realize that there exist any choices other than Windows. It’s not they haven’t heard of Apple or Linux, but that they don’t really understand what they are. Part of Apple’s stated reasons for launching their own retail initiative a few years ago was simply to raise awareness that the Mac even is an alternative to Windows PCs. Apple’s research indicated that they’ve done pretty well historically amongst people deciding between a Mac and a PC; the problem is that the vast majority of home computer buyers never even consider a Mac. I’m guessing the same is true of desktop Linux, and perhaps even more so given Apple’s sizable advertising presence.

There are millions of nerds who have simply decided to stick with Windows. The games, the advantages of widespread hardware and software compatibility, the availability of cheaper hardware, just plain stubbornness — all are factors. And for many people, probably most Windows users, Windows is working just fine for them, thank you very much.

But nerds are people who at least realize Windows is a choice. I’ve never seen any sign that large numbers regular people are even aware of this. Until now.

Lastly, #3, how this affects Apple. What’s good for Apple about this isn’t that all of these people are going to switch from Windows to Mac, but simply that they’re considering switching from Windows at all. The simple fact that more people are becoming aware that there are choices other than Windows, and that there are easy-to-understand reasons why one might do so, could be the best thing to happen to Apple’s market share in a decade.

This is not about some sort of pipe dream where Macintosh market share surges to 10, 15, 20 percent of the PC market. I see no reason to believe that most people who are thinking about abandoning Windows, especially the budget-conscious, won’t simply stick with PC hardware and switch only their operating system.

But given that estimates peg Apple’s overall PC market share at 5 percent in the U.S. and 2 percent worldwide (which isn’t to say those numbers are an accurate gauge of Apple’s success; cf. my “Market Share” piece a year ago), even just one or two additional percentage points would be a significant gain for Apple.

One final note: there’s very little doubt in my mind now that “desktop Linux” market share is going to surge past the Macintosh into second place. (I surround “desktop Linux” with quotes not to disparage it, but because it’s not really a single entity or product, but rather a cornucopia of distributions, but which the trade press tends to treat as a unified whole.) The industry press has a tendency to play this as bad news for Apple, along the angle of “Linux knocks Mac into third place”. But I think the market for desktop Linux — both in homes and corporations — is very different than the market Apple is targeting. Rising desktop Linux market share comes at the expense of Windows’ market share, not the Mac’s.

And anything that raises awareness that there exist alternatives to Windows is a good thing for everyone other than Microsoft.

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