Microsoft’s Biggest Threat: Linux or Apple?

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Since Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at the end of February that Microsoft sees Linux as a bigger threat than Apple, a lot has been made of the hows, whys and what fors.

First of all, it was a shift from the usual Microsoft approach to Linux, which until now has been to ignore or deny the fact that Linux is a serious competitor for them. Second, although Ballmer says Linux is a bigger competitor than Apple, he makes it clear that it’s not the biggest. The biggest competition to Microsoft is piracy (pirated Windows takes the number two spot in the OS market share figures.)

It is actually an interesting statement from Steve Ballmer and one that sets the stage for a lot of discussion. Does Microsoft really see Linux as a bigger threat than Apple? Or is it the usual Microsoft way of dealing with the real threat by ignoring or denying them (as we have seen in past?) We can’t be sure. However, considering certain facts, it may appear that Mr. Ballmer is being honest.

It is important to note the differences between the competition - Microsoft vs. Apple and Microsoft vs. Linux. Microsoft and Apple follow almost the same principles (that software should be paid for and the user doesn’t own it). However, Linux is free and open source. So, it is obvious that Microsoft can not compete with Linux the same way it competes with Apple. Though Linux OS market share is minuscule compared to that of Windows, there are areas where Linux has established itself as a better, cheaper alternative and even has dominated. The widescale use of Linux on web servers is an example.

As pointed out earlier, Microsoft see pirated Windows platforms as their biggest competitor. This is what Ballmer had to say about it.

“That’s a competitor that’s tough to beat, they’ve got a good price and a heck of a product, but we’re working on it.”

The truth however is that it’s not that easy to stop piracy and we have been hearing things like this from a long time. However piracy still exists and for a moment, if we assume that Microsoft finally manages to do something about piracy, then do you think that most of the users stopped from using pirated Windows copies would buy a genuine one? Pirated software is used mainly by people who can not afford to shell out hundreds of dollars for a single piece of software or a section of people who don’t want to pay for software. So, it doesn’t take much thinking to determine how many of these users will translate to Microsoft customers (if Microsoft even manages to curb piracy) when there’s always the option of Linux, which is legally free and comes with an abundance of application options.

Hardware also differentiates the competition. Windows and Linux run on the same kind of hardware whereas Apple have cleverly positioned themselves with their own hardware and brands. So, for anyone planning to make the move from Windows to any other OS, then Linux definitely is a better alternative (as you can use the same set of hardware) than making a move to Apple and buying an entirely new computer. At the same time it is relevant to note that Linux has the capability to run even on older and less powerful hardware. Whereas newer versions of Windows require much more computing power, adding to the upgrade costs. This is the reason Linux has already built a market share on Netbooks and even when it comes to mobile devices, Microsoft finds it hard to compete with Linux and Linux based Android.

Another important thing to notice is that although Apple has grown impressively over the years, its growth is mainly confined to the US. Globally however, the story isn’t that bright (Yeah, we are talking about OS share here, not iPod and IPhone!)

However, if we see things as they are today on the ground, Linux still has a long way to go before it catches up with Microsoft. Sure, it is making huge progress and is growing considerably, but the nature of Linux (being free and open source) is that it really doesn’t care about growing its market share. The Linux community cares more about making Linux better and more powerful, providing the user with the ultimate operating system platform - light, functional and secure. So even though Microsoft may see Linux as its major competitor in terms of market share, Linux has rather more heartwarming reasons to strive for par exellence, and none of them have anything to do with the bottom line.