Will Windows 7 stymie Mac OS X's growth?

Is the new version of Microsoft's operating system on its way destined to hold Apple's Mac OS X back from continued market growth? Or will it inadvertently help its rival grow?

As of December, Apple's Mac OS X commanded 9.63 percent of the OS market, according to Net Applications, while Microsoft still led the way, accounting for more than 88 percent of the operating-system market.

But the real story behind those figures is Apple's meteoric rise in the market. Just one year prior, in December 2007, Apple controlled just 7.3 percent of the operating-system space--a record at the time.

There are numerous reasons why Mac OS X has become so popular over the past few years. Part of it can be attributed to Apple's success and its status in the industry as the most renowned and respected company to consumers. It can also be attributed to Mac OS X itself, which is easily one of the best operating systems ever made.

And most assuredly, part of the reason for Mac OS X's success is Windows Vista. Although it currently controls 21 percent of the market, it was a failure on many levels for Microsoft. Suffice it to say that compatibility issues, User Account Control annoyances, vendor and enterprise unrest, and poor PR contributed to the blunder that was Vista.

But now, as a new Microsoft operating system starts making its way to store shelves, it's incumbent upon us to forecast its expected impact. And after downloading the Windows 7 beta and immersing myself in its environment, I think I can say, both as a Mac user (I'm writing this on my iMac) and what some may call an Apple nut (I own just about every Apple product released over the past five years), Windows 7 will not only stymie Mac OS X's growth, it will push Apple's market share back down to pre-Vista levels.

Even though it's only in beta testing, and there are still quite a few months left for Microsoft to screw things up, Windows 7 is easily one of the best operating systems I've ever used. Driver support is outstanding, and performing basic tasks on a 3-year old, homemade Windows box was delightfully fast. User Account Control was barely seen, and the operating system's redesign, though obviously taking pointers from Mac OS X, made using Windows much easier than in previous iterations. Simply put, the experience was delightful.

But there's another key factor to consider: Windows 7 is optimized for netbooks. And although the market is currently still in its infancy, the netbook space is one of the fastest-growing in the industry, and most analysts believe that the mini devices are the future. Windows XP works fine with netbooks, but Linux has controlled the market with its better software, and now that Windows 7 is available, expect that to end quickly. In other words, Microsoft, with Windows 7, has solidified its place in the future.

Besides the world of netbooks, Windows 7 is still an extremely compelling offering for the enterprise and consumers alike. In essence, it combines all the best features from Windows XP and Vista, as well as Mac OS X, to create a multimedia experience that should make consumers on both Macs and PCs happy. That said, there's always that lingering security issue, and although Microsoft claims that Windows 7 will be the most secure operating system it has ever released, I'll wait to see if that's true.

But the real success for Windows 7 will come from vendors and the enterprise. Hewlett-Packard and Dell will be happy with Windows 7 because their customers will be happy. And the enterprise will be absolutely delighted with Windows 7 because it's not the resource hog Vista is, and believe it or not, it does more in fewer steps, creating an extremely simplified experience--something I've been enjoying on Mac OS X for years now.

That "satisfaction factor" will enable Windows 7 to capture some of Mac OS X's market share. For the first time in recent memory, the new Microsoft OS will appeal to consumers who want a better experience, companies that want reliable software without breaking the bank, and vendors that want their customers to be happy. That didn't happen with Vista, which forced many to switch to Mac OS X, but I think that it will happen with Windows 7.

Now, I know some of you are thinking that the damage has already been done that Mac converts will never look at a Windows machine again. I'm sure that a large percentage of Mac users would probably agree with that sentiment right now. But I'm a firm believer that if people use a particular operating system at work and like using it, they'll bring it into the home.

Maybe millions of people across the U.S. started using Vista, hated it, and bought a Mac because they've heard such great things about it. Or maybe they decided to ignore Vista when they needed a new computer because of all the bad PR and tried out the Mac instead.

But once the enterprise starts adopting Windows 7--and it will--consumer converts will realize that the new Microsoft system is an outstanding product that not only improves the Windows experience but actually eclipses Mac OS X's.

Apple's popularity in the market won't change, regardless of Windows 7, and undoubtedly, there will be a slew of people who will buy Macs because of their affinity for their iPod and iPhone. Regarding those people, Microsoft never stood a chance.

But it's the average consumer--the person who doesn't follow the tech world, doesn't know why so many people hate Microsoft, doesn't understand the basic difference between Mac OS X and Windows, and simply doesn't care about tech, as long as it works--who will consider the alternatives. She will read about Windows 7 on sites like this, examine the price differences between a MacBook Pro and the latest-and-greatest Hewlett-Packard notebook, use Windows 7 at work, and then pick Microsoft's product over Apple's up for personal use.

In the process, Mac converts who moved to Mac OS X out of sheer hatred for Vista might start making their way back to the Windows world, after they hear great things about Microsoft's latest operating system.

As a person who performs almost every computing task on a Mac and tells anyone who will listen that at this point, the average consumer should be using a Mac instead of a Windows machine because of security and usability, I'm starting to prep myself for the single moment that I thought would never come: I'll be using a Windows 7 machine as my main computer and telling anyone who will listen that, believe it or not, using the latest Microsoft operating system really is worth it.

Now excuse me while I go outside to take some pictures of those pigs flying around my house.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter feed, and FriendFeed.

 

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