Microsoft Vista versus the Apple Mac

Matthew JC. Powell
21 September, 2007
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A few weeks ago Microsoft held its annual meeting with financial analysts, where Microsoft’s Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner stated that Microsoft had sold 60 million copies of Vista since launch, eclipsing, by the Microsoft’s math, the entire install base of Apple in the first five weeks.

I don’t often use this space to knock Microsoft. No, stop laughing. Really, I don’t. The maker of the world’s most widely-used operating systems has its share of knockers in other quarters and doesn’t need my voice adding to the cacophony. Add to that the fact that you and I already know that we have in common the choice not to use Microsoft operating systems, and the point of criticism becomes moot.

However, a few weeks ago Microsoft held its annual meeting with financial analysts (a tradition aimed at making the analysts feel warm and fuzzy towards the company rather than actually, you know, analysing it). At this meeting, Microsoft’s Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner said something that I feel warrants — for want of a better word — analysis.

The key point was that Microsoft had sold 60 million copies of Vista since launch. Whether it’s counting “launch” as January when it went on sale to consumers or last November when it went on sale to business I don’t know. What I do know is that Turner claimed that “by our math we eclipsed the entire install base of Apple in the first five weeks”.

It says a lot about what’s happened since the return of Jobs that Microsoft feels the need to make such a comparison. Ten years ago, Apple wouldn’t have rated a mention in a Microsoft analysts’ meeting. Now it’s taken seriously as a competitor. Seriously enough to get all defensive about, anyway.

Aside from that, I thought it was worth checking Microsoft’s math(s).

It’s the devil trying to find out what “the entire install base of Apple” actually equates to. By Apple’s figures it has sold 35 million Macs in the past ten years, but it seems unlikely that all of those are still in use and can therefore be counted in the “install base”. However, it’s a safe bet that some Mac users are still getting mileage out of machines they bought more than ten years ago.

I asked Apple, a company that I think might have some insight into the matter, and even Apple doesn’t have a really solid idea. The number Apple gave me is 22 million, which it reckons is the number of active OS X licences. It’s as good a number as any.

So let’s imagine that Microsoft is claiming to have sold 22 million copies of Vista in the first five weeks. That’s impressive, but it means that the remaining 38 million copies have taken five or six months to trickle through — that’s quite a drop-off, especially when you think about how difficult it is to buy a PC with anything other than Vista installed.

Speaking of which, Turner also mentioned that there are 42 million PCs covered by volume licensing agreements for Vista. These are PCs that belong to companies where one person, or a small group of people, decide what everyone will use. Imagining that there are maybe two million such deciders (a very generous guess) that leaves 40 million people using Vista who did not choose to do so. Who knows what they would be using if given the choice? Maybe Vista, maybe not.

Which, of course, leaves 20 million who did choose to buy Vista. That’s almost as big as Apple’s guess at its installed base, so it’s still pretty impressive.

But hang on. Microsoft, by its own numbers, sells 80 percent of its operating systems to individuals as OEM licences — that is, copies of Windows pre-installed on PCs. As I mentioned before, it’s pretty difficult to buy a PC these days without Vista installed on it, so how many of those individual PC buyers actually wanted Vista? A lot of them no doubt bought their PCs, took them home and reformatted the drives before installing Linux, or Windows XP, or something else. How many? I’d be guessing.

What I would not do is claim that there are 60 million people out there using Windows Vista by choice — or even 20 million, for that matter. If I were the COO of Microsoft, I don’t know that I’d be crowing too loudly that over two-thirds of my customers have no choice in their buying decisions. Turner even boasted that Microsoft has rolled out 100,000 installations of Windows Vista to its employees. When you have to brag that you’re using your own product, something’s not right.

The topper came when Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer (who, I am told, loves his company) announced that by the middle of next year there would be one billion active Windows licences. A copy of Windows for every sixth person on the planet. It is, in Ballmer’s words, a “mind-numbing concept” — particularly if you exclude those members of the population without access to electricity or telephones. Whether it’s true or not, who can say? It’s an impressive number.

“More copies of Windows than there are automobiles,” said Ballmer. Which struck me as odd. Since when does Microsoft consider the automotive industry a competitor? What’s next — fast food? I understand Microsoft has a fair way to go before it catches up with the number of Big Macs sold.

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