I struggle, as I'm sure many do, with talking about Linux because there is no one Linux company and the word really only applies to the kernel. There lies the core problem to the platform on the desktop. Were the total resources available to Linux to focus on the desktop, I have little doubt a real solution would actually emerge. But with small to very small efforts going on at all aspects of this and a target market that wants to learn programming about as much as it wants to learn differential calculus, the gap between what is needed and what is available seems impossibly large.
And Apple has the exact opposite problem.
Last week I commented on the foolish EU proposal to separate the hardware and the OS, which would probably do more harm than good simply because Microsoft already has a more robust aftermarket solution and someone would still have to finish the Linux solution.
I give Microsoft a lot of grief for not finishing things, but in all truth, desktop Linux and the MacOS aren't really any better. They both just choose not to address different parts. This year Microsoft created the biggest opportunity to displace Windows that, to my knowledge, has ever existed. Vista simply wasn't ready at launch and hasn't been for much of this year. But, Vista SP1 is testing really well (given how well Windows Server 2008 was doing, this shouldn't be a surprise) and in a few weeks Microsoft will have reduced substantially the opportunity for displacement it inadvertently created. Given the massive opportunity, the MacOS (which did the best) and Linux didn't move that much.
By the way, I'm kind of getting a kick out of folks complaining about the lack of new features in SP1 given that IT has been very clear it doesn't want new features in a service pack.
I'm of the opinion that when a vendor clearly won't do what they need to do to succeed, you can jump up and down about Microsoft or anyone else all you want, but there is little chance they will succeed because Microsoft isn't the problem. So what do they need to do?
MacOS: Has to Become Hardware-Independent
The biggest historic problem with Apple is the inability to partner successfully. The HP partnership could have grown to something incredibly powerful and unique in the industry but Apple was only interested in keeping HP out of the MP3 market. So, it tricked one of the most honest companies on this planet into a deal it never should have signed.
The Microsoft relationship has always been one where you wonder why it even continues. IBM and Motorola clearly ended very badly, and the company that helped it succeed with the iPod, Portal Player, was so badly damaged it lost its independence and had to be acquired by NVIDIA.
The PC market is ruled by four major vendors, all of them global: HP, Dell, Acer/Gateway and Lenovo. HP and Dell have massive multinational sales and service organizations; HP has one of the most advanced and well-funded R&D labs on the planet, while Dell's leadership is in logistics. Acer/Gateway and Lenovo have access to massive amounts of low-cost labor and some of the most advanced manufacturing facilities in the world. Lenovo owns China while Acer is the company that has torn through much of the rest of Asia and Europe and is the leading expert in the retail market.
Apple isn't running against any one of these companies; it is running against all of them. It has done well for the past couple of years, but that has been a combination of good execution and the fact that none of these competitors, including Microsoft, have really focused on Apple. The iPhone changed that. I've never seen so much effort to acquire ex-Apple employees as I' have in the past few months, including the old iPod team who now reports to a major, non-Apple, OEM.
To win, Apple has to learn to partner. It is like Japan in the Second World War -- executing incredibly well, but overmatched and nearly isolated. In addition, it needs a large portion of the business market to succeed and large businesses resist sole-sourcing like the plague.
To succeed, it needs some powerful close partners. Google and Disney could be a start, but they don't actually seem all that close to either. Apple desperately needs access to an existing large company sales channel (given that it blew its up last decade).
Linux: There Can Be Only One and It Needs to Be Complete
On the other hand, Linux is all over the place. This platform is almost the polar opposite of Apple's in every meaningful way. It is hardware-independent, it is already supported by three of the top four Windows PC vendors, and virtually all of the server vendors, and it is a collaborative effort.
The only problem is, it isn't an "it," it is a "they," and "they" aren't even complete.
The MacOS is a complete product. It comes out of the box loaded on hardware and ready to go. There is only one version actively in the market at any given point and from the out-of-box experience to day-to-day use, its ease of use is a significant advantage. To get there, Apple started with the BSD kernel and built a real desktop OS on top of it. The problems with multiple versions of Linux range from compatibility and support to consistency and lack of ease of use. No Linux version even comes close to the Apple target. To win against Windows, you can't be as good, because you have a significant software backwards-compatibility disadvantage. You have to be substantially better.
However, most Linux distributions would have a problem being even as good as the Windows products they want to displace simply because they are so different. People have to be so excited about the advantages that they are willing to fight through the learning curve and become comfortable with this new (to them) platform.
Several vendors can then sell or offer the platform, in fact, this would be the key to success, but a hardware vendor can't own it, otherwise the other hardware vendors will do what they did with UNIX and create variants.
Would it be hard? Yes, and harder than what Apple has to do, but it has nothing to do with Microsoft.
This all reminds me of the equal-opportunity laws that were put in place in the '60s, and then badly modified in the '70s, to increase diversity, particularly when you consider what the EU is trying to do to Microsoft and EU think tank's proposal to separate hardware and the OS.
Equal-opportunity laws started out well, but were modified to include quotas and they damn near killed U.S. business, and probably increased minority stereotypes. So a forcing function was put in place that would take minorities by quota and move them up, but there was no requirement that they could actually do the jobs once they were placed in them. The result was an increase in the perception that they couldn't do the senior jobs (which they couldn't, but the cause wasn't race or sex, it was lack of training and qualifications). The result was a mess we are still digging out from.
Minorities who have succeeded aren't those that kick back and get free rides. They tend to be those who overachieve and come into the job better qualified, overcoming their competitors with competence, confidence and execution.
Opportunities certainly can be created for alternatives to Windows, but if those backing the alternatives don't want to do the needed work, buyers and users are put at risk. That should be unacceptable. Users and buyers did nothing wrong and don't deserve to be punished because Microsoft screwed up or because Apple and the Linux folks don't want to complete their jobs.
I believe the way we modified equal-opportunity laws in the United States was stupid and largely counterproductive, particularly since it destroyed most of the science surrounding effective job matching. I really don't want to see the same thing happen with software either here or in the European Union because the result likely would be bad for everyone.
If Cisco can come up from nothing and boot 3Com out of its segment, Apple can create something like the iPod and take out both Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo can obliterate Sony, HP can go from also-ran to pass IBM, and Toyota can slam-dunk GM in the U.S. market, then execution is still king. But you must execute. Free rides are fine, but at some point, if you want to win a race, you have to learn to drive and be willing to do what it takes to win.