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Microsoft vs Apple: The Battle Heats Up

written by: John Lister•edited by: Brian Nelson•updated: 5/18/2009

Even after years of rivalry, it appears the battle between Microsoft and Apple is getting more fierce. We look at how the two sides are competing in sales, price, advertising and even environmental credentials.

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    Windows remains by the far the dominant operating system, but Apple’s systems are on the rise. In the third quarter of 2008, 9.5% of computers sold in the US were produced by Apple, up almost a third compared with one year earlier.

    That proportion looks set to continue rising according to a recent study showing that, among people intending to buy a computer in the next 90 days, 29% of laptops buyers planned to get a Mac, with the figure at 26% for desktop buyers. It’s worth noting that this figure has fallen slightly over recent months after generally rising consistently since early 2006.

    Because Apple produces its own hardware (and doesn’t license it to other manufacturers), buyers usually have to take into consideration both the operating system they prefer and the specifications of computer they want. The only place the two systems directly compete is with a company called Psystar which offers custom-built machines running the operating system (Windows, Apple’s Leopard, or Linux) of your choice. However, Apple is suing Psystar for allegedly using Leopard without permission. As the case is currently going through mediation, any figures showing which system Psystar customers preferred may be kept secret for now.

    The chances are that Apple may continue to gain market share, but its growth will eventually be limited by the number of large organisations which either prefer Windows or are too wary of taking on a rival system.

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    Recent publicity efforts have made it very clear Apple doesn’t want to get into a price war. Though it’s entry-level MacBook laptop just dropped below the thousand dollar mark for the first time, there weren’t any major price cuts in the new Apple range, which surprised some analysts who expected such a move to combat the tough economy.

    Microsoft has recently dubbed Macs as carrying an “Apple Tax", an increased cost both in the purchase price and the lack of flexibility and choice compared with the much wider range of PCs.

    Apple seems comfortable with positioning itself as a premium brand, believing customers will pay higher prices for what they perceive to be a better quality product. There’s also an extent to which the Apple brand itself comes across as desirable and thus worth a higher price.

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    Apple has conducted a long-standing advertising campaign starring a stuffy, nerdy character (symbolising the PC) and a trendier, more personable character (symbolising the Mac). The campaign regularly compares traits of the two computer systems, portraying the Mac as more impressive.

    Microsoft has never directly mentioned its rivals in advertising before, but recently launched a campaign based around the phrase “I’m a PC". While not mentioning Macs, it’s a very clear nod towards the Apple adverts and acts as an attempt to give a more positive image for the PC (and thus the Windows system).

    Apple has now responded with an even more direct attack: the latest installments of “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC" outright state that Microsoft spends money on advertising Vista rather than improving the system, and that Microsoft is intentionally avoiding mentioning the word ‘Vista’ in its advertising because the brand is so tainted.

    It’ll be interesting to see how Microsoft responds and whether, for example, it directly refers to the so-called ‘Apple Tax’.

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    As interest in climate change and other environmental issues grows, many corporate firms have become concerned with their ‘green image’. Campaign group Greenpeace runs an annual study of tech firms rating them for their recycling efforts, their actions to tackle climate change, and their use of toxic chemicals in production.

    In the 2008 study, Apple rated 4.1 out of 10, while Microsoft scored just 2.2. The difference appeared to be Apple’s efforts to reduce toxic content, and the energy efficiency of some of its computers. However, critics of Greenpeace say the study is flawed because it marks down companies which don’t provide certain details of their work, even if they might actually be acting responsibly. It’s also difficult to compare the two operating systems as the vast majority of Windows computers are made by independent firms.

    Apple is certainly winning the publicity war, though. A recent study found consumers perceived it as the most environmentally friendly brand, ahead of several PC manufacturers which actually earned higher ratings.

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