Apple, as we've noted before, is planning to make a massive run at the desktop and evidently has addressed many of the compatibility problems with Leopard that have made is technically unacceptable for the enterprise. The product now works reasonably well in a Microsoft shop, and the one outstanding big feature, Exchange support, has evidently been addressed in iWork, which is gaining the appearance of an Office replacement product.
The plan is to hit the market hard starting at the end of March when the frustration surrounding Windows Vista is likely to peak. This assumes they can get Leopard done in time; it has been delayed and there are indications they are running into execution problems themselves (Apple TV was just delayed, for instance).
The product looks better than it ever has as a competitor, and Microsoft is as exposed as they've ever been. The timing is good. However, there are four major problems with this plan.
The first is one they have consistently refused to address, and that is allowing for a second vendor to sell the MacOS. This is a similar problem to what let Intel to license x86 to AMD in the early years; without two vendors they will be locked out of most accounts and they won't be able to scale quickly enough to take advantage of the short-term opportunity.
The second is they are seen as a consumer vendor, much like Sony. Sony has been trying to penetrate the corporate market for the better part of a decade with Windows and has bounced consistently. Part of this is that while their products are some of the best on the market, Sony lacks the required enterprise class service and support, and Apple is in this same boat.
The third is they aren't trusted. This goes beyond their consumer status; they were in the enterprise once and abandoned the market. When IT managers tried to pull out the products, users threatened to quit and they had personnel nightmares. Most who have been through this once never want to go through it again, and memories last decades. Most companies wonder if Apple will be willing to ride it out this time and don't want to take the chance if the answer is "no" again.
Fourth (Microsoft response) IT moves very slowly. They don't even have a budget to do Vista this year and haven't set one for 2008; money for them doesn't grow on trees and it will take them at least a year to set up for the MacOS. This gives Microsoft 12 months to use their entrenched teams to point out dependencies and risks that are probably not visible today and to get their supporters, who they forget too often, motivated to counter this decision. They are entrenched at all levels of most large companies, and that makes the politics of a move like this very difficult.
So let's look at how the two match up. Both are addressing a key Microsoft vulnerability and both are targeting business. Apple will be more attractive to small and medium businesses; Linux to large business, particularly those that already have a good-sized Linux or UNIX presence. Dell's effort isn't well funded largely because Linux doesn't throw off enough profit; Apple's will be well funded but they will have severe problems scaling and there will be substantial resistance to a single-vendor solution from any public company or government entity.
Of the two, I think Apple will actually drive more volume. Apple clearly has the stronger financial incentives and the small to medium business market doesn't have the single vendor concerns that will stop Apple in enterprises. Finally, the MacOS is a validated desktop platform, while Linux is still viewed as some distance from this goal. While SuSe is arguably the best in terms of total solution, it remains well behind both Microsoft and Apple in terms of both desktop experience and desktop application compatibility.
Still, unless Apple addresses its own shortcomings, the fight with Microsoft is likely to be more in our heads than in the market. Sure they could double or even triple their market share, but they can't do so fast enough without breaking the company (hardware firms can only scale so fast and 300 percent growth would likely cause the company to experience a meltdown). This gives Microsoft a massive amount of time to stop the bleeding, and Microsoft's resources exceed Apple's by over 100 to one.
The only way Linux can win is if the game changes dramatically. Certainly this is possible, because such a game change took IBM out as the previous generation's dominant company.
What if Dell/Novell did with Linux what Apple did with BSD UNIX? Basically redid the user interface and created new product with a massive improvement in ease of use? Then if they allowed other vendors to license it they would, particularly if they used Apple's UI as a template, have an Apple-like product without many of the existing limitations. Now, wouldn't that be interesting?
Next we'll look at Preliminary Bout II: Battle for the Productivity Suite