Lets take a look at this future battle. I wont be calling winners and losers, but will be pointing out the key things to look for to call this fight early.
Windows Vista is a major OS release, the first that has attempted to do both corporate and consumer desktops at the same time since Windows 95. Given that, it is actually surprising how well it has done, because technology has changed a lot in the last 10 years and this was a long dry spell between major releases. Still, because it is a major release, IT is understandably a little leery of the platform. We have yet to see anything that looks like a major implementation wave in business.
This will represent the strongest offering Microsoft will have for desktop hardware. Office 2010 will be optimized for it, which is different than Office 2007 and Vista today. Indications for adoption, if the product is successful, should start showing up in late 2008 as budgets get set to deploy the product early in companies; this will likely include a large number of companies that werent interested in, or able to deploy, Vista. Any major slide in market share ramping up to the Windows 2010 launch would indicate the market was looking elsewhere for their new platform. The result would do Microsoft massive financial damage.
We will begin to get a feeling for the changes in the product at TechEd this year but probably wont get a real sense until the same show in 2008, when product specifications are likely to be more certain. This a keystone product for Microsoft and if they lose too much market share it could spell a decline for the company. But if the market likes it, it could also shore up the firm, ensuring its continued survival, if not prosperity, for another 5 years.
While this is a point release and due out in October this year, the product is undergoing a massive change primarily to improve its Windows interoperability. This is Apples strongest push onto the business desktop since Steve Jobs has been running the company.
Initially it likely will have some growing pains but by 2009 most of those should be in the past. Security for the platform may be a bigger problem, but with attacks moving to the application layer and services like Google becoming the next big security exposure, as a result, this might actually not matter very much.
Because it is a contained hardware/software offering and will represent a much deeper collaboration between Intel and Apple, this may actually make better use of some hardware, like hybrid drives, than Vista currently does (though Windows 2010 will likely reverse this).
There are likely two long term problems. The first is the inability to competitively bid hardware, given there is only one hardware vendor pre-loading the MacOS. The second is with Windows-Mac compatibility so high, software vendors who support both Windows and the Mac may drop Mac support to contain costs and assume their Windows offerings will run on the Mac. That last, at least from an IT perspective, might be a good thing, and go a long way to addressing the first problem as well because, if you can keep the applications stack basically constant you can competitively bid Apple in the years after the initial bid is won.
The short term problem is trust. Apple abandoned this market some time ago and refuses to share roadmaps with IT buyers, something they expect to get from any hardware vendor they deal with. This makes it difficult for them to trust the companys commitment to them and this will probably stand in the way of success.
They will be at their strongest during 2008. And if they can increase market share dramatically they are still around 4% right now they should be able to carry that momentum into 2009 to go head to head with Windows 2010 (probably mostly in small to medium business but this will be an interesting battle to watch regardless).
However, if share remains below 5% after this push they will likely conclude that their resources are better spent with CE products going forward, where a lot less effort has made them much more successful. This could mark the beginning of a new more powerful Apple, or the final move after the firm took Computer out of their name.
Linux: Dell, HP and IBM Blazing the Way
I still have my doubts whether Linux on the desktop will ever be real but it gets a huge push in 2008 from both Dell and IBM, who are taking huge gambles on the platform. Of the two, IBMs is the more interesting and vastly more risky, while HP is, with a somewhat similar approach, being much more focused on being platform agnostic.
For IBM and HP it is a platform changer. IBM is using blades and thin client technology, coupled with Linux, to recreate a mainframe experience (in terms of reliability, security, and cost of ownership) for the desktop (and may have AIX in the wings for a premium offering). HP is also using blades but this is more of a blend of PC and Server technology with a heavy focus on high density and power/heat conservation and no exclusive commitment to Linux.
Dells is a straight Windows replacement, and has, at least initially, a similar feel to other Dell offerings. (See the Dell blog here; scroll down to see Ubuntu post.)
Each companys offering should appeal to a distinct audience: IBM to places where security and user control is of primary concern; HP where security is high, but trumped by flexibility of solution and choice of platform; and Dell for those that dont want Windows but do want a very similar experience. IBM believes so much in their view of the future they actually sold off their PC division to Lenovo so there would be no conflict going forward and they could focus.
Both IBM and HP use Linux as more of a packaged solution and typically dictate which distribution you will use, significantly reducing their own support cost and related risk. Dell is still struggling somewhat with choosing a Linux platform and their initial choice appears to be Ubuntu Linux.
Because these companys offerings are so dissimilar the Linux outcome will likely be mixed, one of these approaches is likely to eclipse the others and define the future of the Linux desktop in business but which one is anyones guess and I dont have a good one yet.
It is also possible that all three could fail because it is still too early or because of the lack of consistency between vendors, which is often required to create a viable market in this space. Once again strength will be best in 2009/10 and we are looking for major enterprise moves towards the IBM or HP offerings, and major consumer/small business/education success for Dells.
Microsoft is the entrenched vendor but, as a result of delaying Vista and failing to build much of an IT wave for it, they have left the door open for significant competitive challenges in a market they have had locked up for some time. If they can get Windows 2010 out in time, and it meets the expectations that Vista didnt, then they likely can retain dominance even if they do lose a lot of market share. But, if they dont execute, the non-Windows alternatives could turn them into old news and that would be a lousy way for them to end the decade.
For you, the good news is you will increasingly have alternatives, and that is the bad news as well, because choices do make life both more exciting and riskier. And because the missed dependencies (custom apps, unique hardware) and there are always missed dependencies have a tendency to really take the fun out of any platform change even if it is to a new version of Windows. But, you are going to have to move, so youd better start setting up to make as good a choice as you can when the opportunity presents itself.
I suggest you watch all three options and then follow your head to the right decision for your company.