We recently had one large company announce it was going to the Mac. I remember a few years back talking to the new CIO of a multinational pharmaceutical company -- the last time I saw a decision like this. He was the new CIO because the old one, and virtually all of the executive IT staff, had been fired by their board for making a similar decision. Funny thing (well, not all that funny) is, this company had been largely an Apple shop to begin with. That was then, this is now, and Apple is clearly on a roll.
Google is coming up fast; you could argue it has more corporate seats now through search than Apple has ever had, but it is a good distance from actually having a solution that could displace Microsoft. Its strategy is to trivialize the OS and its win would not necessarily mean Apple's loss, because if the OS is irrelevant, then Apple's barrier to entry would be vastly lower. But its win would mean Google would likely get the majority of the desktop revenue. This last is something neither Microsoft nor Apple would want.
Linux is in the game as well, but we've covered that elsewhere and we'll give the open source guys the day off on this one.
Microsoft won't be standing quietly by either, but its competitive response won't really show up until Windows 7. Right now, market momentum is working against it, thanks to Vista's poor enterprise showing and the related frustration from the OEMs. Recall that IBM owned the desktop, such as it was, going into the '80s. Ten years later (when things were moving vastly slower), Microsoft owned it. So change can happen, and the market is signaling change.
Apple: Hard Choices
From a technology standpoint, Leopard looks very good as an enterprise platform. However, the recent announcements with iWork once again put the future of Office for the Mac at risk. That could cause many to speculate that, just like Microsoft did with IE, it will walk away from Office on the Mac because it doesn't want to compete with a severe disadvantage.
Office for the Mac has always lacked the solid Exchange support it needed to really bridge the gap anyway, and support for native applications still requires an emulator or a virtual machine to work (which, right now, generally requires a copy of Windows). However, more and more things are moving to the Web and with a Web interface. Unfortunately, Safari isn't considered the most compatible with IE of all of the browsers. Fortunately, Firefox runs on the Mac and its compatibility may be good enough for most, but it still creates a complex solution where Apple doesn't assure the outcome. This represents added risk and works against the decision.
Working for it is what people believe to be a more secure and stable platform. The reality may be different, but purchase decisions are based on beliefs and if a decision maker believes the platform is better (and there is a lot of frustration with Windows right now), they are more likely to take the leap.
The problems for Apple are fourfold:
Are these game killers? No. Two are in Apple's control and the last can be corrected with enough Apple funding. The first remains a big problem that likely would prevent Apple from gaining much more than 10 percent market share even if the last three were effectively addressed. The way to move against a dominant vendor is to change the rules and Apple is still operating much the same as it did in the '80s, though the world has changed.
Google: Change the Rules, Own the Market
In a very short time, Google has blown past Apple, AOL/Netscape, Oracle and IBM to become Microsoft's greatest competitor. It didn't do that by building hardware or working on an OS; it did that by largely ignoring where Microsoft was and moving where it was not. It looked out at a world that was vastly changed from the time when PCs were born and realized that the real fight was on the Internet and that there was an untapped significant funding source that could eliminate Microsoft's funding advantage. In short, Google changed the game and currently has more enterprise, small business and consumer presence than Apple has ever had. Granted, it exists alongside Apple and Microsoft, but it is growing faster and is more profitable, as a percentage of revenue, than either, and not by a trivial margin either.
Like Microsoft, Google will partner with almost everyone. Like Apple, it focuses on the user experience. Unlike either, it understands the advertising revenue source and is moving to lock most of it up. I think you could argue that, in search, Google has a level of dominance that comes close to Microsoft's in most geographies.
Unlike Apple, Google's is not an all-or-nothing strategy either. It moves in one piece at a time, this widget, that applet, then an application or two. If successful, most of the value of the desktop will be from Google and you may no longer really care if you have a PC or an appliance with an embedded OS on it.
What slows it down significantly is its dependence on the Internet. Laptops are the fastest growing hardware and laptops are often disconnected. This too is changing, however; airplanes are getting wireless and WiMax is due to roll out shortly. Still, in most cases, latency will then become a problem and Google's desktop productivity solutions don't deal with that well yet.
Google's barriers to entry are largely technical; it is on a vastly better attack vector than Apple but doesn't have an offering that is as mature. If I were to bet which one could displace Microsoft, Google has vastly more potential than Apple does because it moves against Microsoft's weaknesses while Apple largely moves against Microsoft's strengths.
Wrapping Up: Apple, Google, Linux or Windows
Winning is about hard choices. To take out IBM/Lotus/Novell, Microsoft had to make some incredibly painful choices. The end result was market dominance. Apple would have to make choices that, right now, are virtually impossible with Steve Jobs at the helm. For Linux, a similar problem exists in that it would probably have to stop being Linux to make the jump. Google doesn't have to change what it is to move into this space; it only has to execute and while executing won't be easy, it is one hell of a lot easier than fundamentally changing what you are.
But, do remember, in all cases, the entrenched vendor always has the edge in any fight and Microsoft could still respond effectively. Google is also growing incredibly fast, which often leads to major mistakes in staffing and governance, and costs are starting to look a bit out of control. So Google winning is certainly not a sure thing, but it has the best chance of any vendor since Netscape to change the desktop. And, if you think about it, Google wouldn't have this chance if Netscape hadn't come first.
One final thought: If Google wins and the desktop OS is trivialized, the cheapest desktop wins and standardization isn't important. Linux wouldn't have to stop being Linux, making it the big winner. Apple, because it carries both hardware and software cost, probably stops being a PC company, and while Microsoft could remain the dominant OS supplier, that dominance probably won't matter.
It will take three to 10 years for this all to develop but if anyone thought things were about to get boring, think again.