There is beginning to be a bit of a buzz about Ubuntu. The better it gets, the buzz as well as the product, the less likely it is that Microsoft will persuade Windows XP users to move to Vista. Vista is expensive, complex and unreliable and there are too many versions of it. And Office 2007… who needs it? Ouch!
Is there yet a sense of urgency at meetings of worried dinosaurs aboard the Titanic in Redmond? While they’ve been worrying about the EU iceberg and Google asteroid threatening Windows and Office, it seems that the most imminent threats may come from previously disregarded quarters.
One is Apple, which is not so much a threat as an embarrassment. This is a company that Microsoft kept supplied with oxygen throughout its years of stupid leadership for the sole purpose of proving that it was not a monopoly and that people did have a choice. If Microsoft had pulled the plug on Microsoft Office products for Apple the company would have been toast years ago.
Back then more than a few Apple users were tiresome poseurs. If Apple were more successful they’d have needed to move upmarket to be different. Hugh McLeod’s cartoon sends this lot up perfectly. Of course every IT manager was told “I need product X and it’s not available for the PC” and then established, 9 times out of 10, that this was not true. More: “I want to feel close to those close to those close to the Prince of Sales.”
All they did was give Microsoft an alibi, a little anti-trust insurance. Fast forward a few years and now this little upstart company in the Duchy of Cupertino has not just failed to die of its own insane coolness, it’s making Microsoft look like a lumbering diplodocus.
Apple is a consumer products company that was perceived to have failed in the computer business. It dropped the word computer from its name, ostensibly as it was being so successful in other markets. So, howcome its computer sales are booming? The ipod halo was a credible answer a while ago. Increasingly, the answer is that it’s because its flagship operating system software is now so much better than Microsoft’s and because people have had it with Microsoft, especially with viruses and spyware, to say nothing of all the crapware that is installed by computer resellers–and which Apple has rightly lampooned (more PC v Mac entertainment here).
Microsoft succeeded, in part, because success was repeatedly handed to it as result of strategic mistakes of others: IBM, Lotus, Word Perfect, Borland, Novell and others. Now its failure to focus on staying competitive in its core businesses, Windows and Office, looks like a disaster in the making.
On Friday Apple will release the next version of OSX, code-named Leopard. It was already considered better than Vista, and now it’s opening up a lead. The only word for this is humiliating and it will be interesting to see how Apple rubs salt in the wound. When it comes to open source software Microsoft can bleat about the viral nature of the GPL license, make innuendos about its intellectual property, or even grandiose claims that our entire way of life is threatened by open source software. But when the company is simply outperformed by what many consider as the Prada of the computer business then claims on our sympathies seem a bit of a stretch.
As of today, Apple’s market capitalisation exceeds that of IBM!
One embarrassment might be survivable, arguably even necessary, but two begins to damage Microsoft’s credibility and make it look vulnerable. It’s early days to call the rapidly maturing Ubuntu a real threat but the writing is on the wall.
In terms of software quality I believe Ubuntu is now good enough to be a mass market product. Had the current version been available in January I would not now have 4 PCs running Vista at home (3 plus one Vista Media Centre/PVR, for which I’ll now look at Mythbuntu).
Today Ubuntu is popping up all over the place. Two tech journalists at ZDNet UK have just announced that they find Ubuntu better than Vista. See Why I’ve moved from Vista to Ubuntu by Matt Loney and Vista versus Ubuntu by Rupert Goodwins.
In the UK supermarket giant Tesco is following Dell and is now selling PCs with Ubuntu pre-installed. Cheap and cheerful, as you’d expect. Even the high end is a bit lame. However, they are just calling it Linux. That is strange enough for many who haven’t heard of, never mind know How to pronounce Ubuntu.
If you’d like to try it out, here’s How to Install The Perfect Desktop – Ubuntu 7.10. If you don’t have a spare PC and don’t want to install Ubuntu in a dual boot configuration you can install it in a free, open source virtual machine using Virtual Box.
Microsoft won’t be able to stop the next version of Ubuntu, which is virtually certain to be delivered on time next April. It must release a better product that is actually worth the money. And it needs to get it right the second time not the third. From what we know now of the planned service pack it seems this isn’t going to happen!
Microsoft will also have to respond with more than just better products delivered faster. In the UK, ending its rip-off practice of charging double what products cost in the US would be a good start (VAT% + would be acceptable). While it has enormous amounts of inertia on its side, Microsoft is also a company that a lot of people would like to see taken down a peg. It is today’s Standard Oil. Its instinct will likely be to engage in proxy attacks on open source software and try to bog it down in patent disputes. What it needs is fear of extinction, not a desire to see competitors become extinct.