OS Horse Race: Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux

The recent small changes in market share between the various desktop operating systems point to larger future changes.
The competition for market share between the leading desktop OSes, Windows, Mac and Linux, has seen no major revolution this year. But based on data from Net Applications, there have been subtle changes that suggest major shifts in the years ahead.

In sum, Apple claimed the largest number of new users, though it remains a distinctly niche player. Linux can boast of more than doubling its user base, yet its overall number is still miniscule. The dominant Windows holds on to its lion’s share, but the adoption rate for the massively marketed Vista is merely respectable.

Here are the current stats:

Apple

Between December 2006 and September 2007, Apple’s share rose from 5.62% to 6.61%, based on Net Applications data. While still a small number in absolute terms, the approximately 15% increase in users must be heartening to Apple execs. Apparently all the buzz around iPods and iPhones is helping breathe life into the brand.

The overall number includes both Mac OS and Macintel data. Mactintel is up sharply in the time period, from 1.52% to 3.23%, with Mac OS (the older, per-Intel machines) falling from 4.15% to 3.38%.

“Apple continues to do very, very well,” says Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. In particular, the company has grown significantly faster in the notebook race than some of its competitors, he notes.

Apple was a bit of a dark horse that people wrote off in the late ‘90s, yet is now resurgent, Gartenberg says. And while this resurgence may result in larger numbers ahead, “You don’t capture market share in a day or in an hour.”

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Most compellingly, “They’re capturing consumer’s mindshare, and the one thing we know is, you’ve got to capture mindshare before you capture market share.”

Windows

The Net Application data reveals that Windows users, while not wildly passionate about Vista, are still a highly loyal bunch.

In December ‘06, the No. 1 operating system was the venerable Windows XP, with a hefty 85.30% market share. At that time, Vista was still being launched, garnering only a 0.16% share.

By September 07, XP’s share had drifted down to 79.32%, yet Vista had taken up the slack, growing to 7.38%. Growing from nothing to 7 percent is impressive, until you consider the context. First, Microsoft spent $500 million on a marketing campaign (including an appearance by Bill Gates on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart). Second, Vista is installed on most new PCs, so it’s the default option for the vast majority of PC buyers.

Since it’s reasonable to assume that at least 10 percent of Windows users buy a new machine every year, it’s likely that Vista would have seen a 7 percent adoption rate even without the half billion dollar ad campaign. It kind of makes you wonder what all the money really accomplished.

Still, the market share numbers demonstrate that Windows users remain committed to their OS. The total share held by the combination of XP and Vista is greater than it was in December ’06; this modest gain comes from older systems like Windows 98 finally giving out. (For example, the 0.03% of users still running Windows 95 in December ‘06 has finally disappeared). Despite efforts like the clever, hip “Switch to Mac” campaign, the Windows OS suffered no appreciable defection this year.

Indeed, the Windows saga defies historical trends. Given that the Windows desktop took dominance in the 1980s, the fact that its near monopoly remains essentially unchallenged in 2007 – competing in the hyper-fast changing arena of technology – makes it astoundingly successful. Apparently that $500 million did some good after all.

Linux

Linux in 2007 definitely takes honors for “most improved.” The open source OS, fueled by impassioned enthusiasts but still not embraced by the general public, more than doubled its market share. Data from Net Application shows that it grew from 0.37% in December ‘06 to 0.81% in September ‘07. (The figures count only Internet-connected PCs, not servers or embedded devices, two of Linux’s strong areas.)

That’s a tiny piece of the pie, but comparing it to earlier data reveals a potentially powerful trend. In all of 2006, Linux grew from 0.29% to 0.37%. That’s a robust move, percentage-wise, but not jaw-dropping. In contrast, its doubling growth between December ’06 and September ’07 shows a dramatic spike upward. Dell's recent decision to offer a limited number of machines with Linux pre-installed must be making a difference.

Regardless of its modest market share in absolute terms, the fact that Linux more than doubled suggests it is growing at a collision course with the other OSes. If it were to maintain its current growth rate, it would be the dominant OS by the year 2014.






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