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Lo and behold, Paris Hiltons response to the John McCain ad that used her as an attack vehicle against Obama showed me the way. Yes, I had to work that into a column.
Lets open with the opportunity that both Apple and IBM (which is the Linux attack leader) are targeting, and then wrap in the Paris Hilton response to explain why they wont be successful. The core reason: because neither is truly willing to do what it takes to move against the opportunity Windows Vista has created.
In essence, both will repeat the same mistake Microsoft made in going after UNIX, and the result is that both will fall short as a result.
Microsoft made a common mistake that is often made by a dominant vendor. Once dominant, a vendor tends to become inefficient, but, still needing to grow revenue and profit, will pull back marketing expense and increase product price.
The end result is value goes upside down and the product will stall and/or a competitor will merge. By saying the value goes upside down I mean that folks feel they are overpaying for the product and rather than wanting it they feel they are forced to buy it.
In a nutshell, at least in the enterprise, that is the net of the problem. The market views the offering as having too little value for its price and feels forced to deploy it and, I should add, is clearly in a position to say No. This market is now clearly looking for something else and creating an opportunity that both Apple and IBM are shooting for.
Now, be aware, that until there is a shift, the entrenched vendor could still fix the core problem by either (or both) lowering cost (and I include perceived migration cost which is actually the bigger number) and increasing value (generally attributed to marketing but could include bundles of other things).
Microsoft has hired a new agency and put what is believed to be several hundred million dollars aside to address this. So the opportunity should decline somewhat as a result of this effort.
Also, if there is any significant success Microsoft could still aggressively move to protect their base. But often, the entrenched vendor moves too late and after too much damage is done so a competitor should always make their move.
Why Microsoft Failed with UNIX
Rather than jumping in to pointing out why IBM and Apple wont go far enough, lets instead look at how Microsoft didnt embrace the UNIX opportunity, which largely fueled Linux in the first place.
UNIX was also very exposed in the 90s; it was fragmented and its value, which was largely based on a comparison to mainframe costs, was drifting down sharply because of the increasing capability of Netware, initially OS/2, and eventually Windows Servers.
UNIX was, and we can clearly see this in hindsight, incredibly exposed but to take advantage of this exposure Microsoft needed to embrace UNIX and provide a higher value alternative. Note I said and; Microsoft saw this as an or. And while they created a higher value alternative they never embraced UNIX, resulting in the creation of Linux which was a higher value alternative to UNIX and it embraced the core attributes that UNIX represented to the decision makers (and actually expanded on some of them, like Open Source).
Microsoft, to its credit, has fought to parity on servers in terms of balancing the advantages of its platform against the different advantages of Linux. But with a vastly larger budget and resources, Microsoft is actually close to equilibrium because they have yet to fully embrace the core UNIX concepts (but you could argue much of their recent success is largely due to the fact that they are drifting closer and closer to open source).
This was their bridge too far.
Why Apple and IBM will Fall Short
There are three ways I know of to displace a dominant product. One is but take over control of the company that owns it; two is to obsolete the market conditions that support it (mainframes to client/server); and three, to embrace and extend the offering with sufficient resources to move the existing base on a refresh cycle to your offering (Microsoft Office vs. Lotus Notes).
Microsoft is too expensive to buy and both offerings are operating system platforms which dont change the market dynamic, leaving choice three for this example. However, you could argue that IBM and Apple are working on choice two with their thin client and iPhone efforts, and that the iPhone is probably going to be more successful at penetrating the enterprise than Snow Leopard will be. (Well leave that for another time.)
So to embrace and extend Windows, IBM and Apple have two distinctly different problems. For Apple they need to be vastly more open than they are, and IBM needs to ensure there is one simple OS choice and that the product is at least as easy to use and its future is as well understood as Windows.
The problem is that Linux is still too much like UNIX and not enough like Windows to fulfill the embrace/extend requirement. Too many distributions and too little commonality between providers will keep it from moving on this opportunity. To succeed there needs to be one compelling Linux distribution and that wont happen.
Apple has nearly the exact opposite problem. Their offering is a true desktop product, easy to use and highly consistent. But Apple is so closed and proprietary they make Microsoft look like an Open Source company by comparison.
Apple is also a single vendor solution, and one of the major concerns surrounding Windows is that Microsoft has too much power; Apple makes that problem worse because they lock in the hardware as well. To succeed, Apple would have to spin out their platform so that the hardware isnt locked to a single vendor and becomes vastly more open (particularly with regard to roadmap). They wont do that.
In sum, neither IBM nor Apple will go far enough to embrace Windows to truly displace it. IBM cant because it doesnt own Linux, and Apple simply isnt willing to.
The Paris Hilton Angle
As weve seen, John McCain compared Barack Obama to Paris Hilton in an attempt to take the advantage of his celebrity and turn it into a disadvantage. Recall that Steve Jobs, in facing iPod competitors, spoke of both video and Flash as stupid (until he was able to do both) because they provided advantages to his competitors. This suggests McCains team is reading partially from Jobs playbook.
The way that Paris Hilton responded (its actually watching the video) was brilliant.
Instead of complaining, she turned this into a media forum on herself and took the highest profile disagreement between the two parties and made it her own. If you listen to the video you will hear a blend of McCains and Obamas energy policy that is arguably better and more likely to get through congress than either candidates plan.
The big thought here is that what is needed to displace Vista is a blend of the approaches that IBM and Apple are making. A combination of the open aspects of Linux with the simplicity of the MacOS.
To win any contest you have to be willing to do what it takes to win. Neither IBM/Linux nor Apple will do what it takes to win in this space. They can gain share but, in the end, their efforts to truly displace Microsoft will fail.
It is with some humor I point out that Paris Hilton seems to get this better than they do.