Apple's planned release of Snow Leopard on Aug. 28 has led to widespread comparisons between its newest operating system version and Microsoft's Windows 7. Both operating systems offer aesthetic and performance refinements, but Snow Leopard also faces an uphill battle if Apple wishes to seize more substantial market share in the enterprise and in the small and midsize business realm.
Snow Leopard's improvements are mostly under the hood, with an emphasis on speed. Mail loads in half the time as in Leopard Version 10.4.8, while initial backup of Time Machine is 80 percent faster, according to Apple. The 64-bit version of Safari 4 is 50 percent quicker than the 32-bit version, and the Finder has been fine-tuned to be more responsive, the company said. There is built-in support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007. Snow Leopard also requires 7GB less space on the hard drive than the previous Mac OS X iteration.
Apple seems to be promoting rapid adoption of the new operating system by offering it to Mac OS X Leopard users for $29; those who purchase a Mac between June 8 and Dec. 26 will be able to purchase a Snow Leopard upgrade package for $9.95.
That strategy has the potential to work, according to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who estimates that Snow Leopard will ship 5 million copies through the end of September. Heading into its launch, the operating system has taken top spots on Amazon.com's bestseller list on the strength of preorders.
With regard to SMBs that utilize Apple products, the other big news is the release of the Snow Leopard Server on the same date as its client-side counterpart. The server, which will cost $499, features iCal Server 2 and Address Book Server.
"Apple is attempting to meet the needs of an increasing number of people using Macs for work," Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said in an interview with eWEEK. Despite the relatively low number of companies historically that have adopted Apple as a cross-company platform, he said, "I think what we're seeing is Apple acknowledging that they'd like to see more [business] people buying Macs."
Microsoft is on track, meanwhile, to launch Windows 7 on Oct. 22. Windows 7 has many features that invite a head-to-head comparison against the less-expensive Snow Leopard, including a smaller memory footprint than its Windows Vista predecessor.
In addition, Windows 7 brings aesthetic enhancements, particularly to aspects such as the task bar, which further encourage comparison with Leopard. Unlike Leopard, which Apple considers an iterative updating of its operating system, Microsoft would like users to see Windows 7 as a completely new and separate entity from the much-hated Vista. On top of that, Microsoft is hoping that Windows 7 will promote an industrywide tech refresh that will boost not only its own sagging revenues, but also those of its ecosystem partners.
Although both operating systems offer improvements in speed and durability, Microsoft has traditionally held a lock on end-user IT infrastructure within the enterprise that seems unlikely to break soon. By comparison, a report in early 2009 by research company Forrester found that the Mac adoption rate for businesses in Europe and North America had actually declined to 3 percent from 5 percent in 2008.
With those numbers in mind, it seems unlikely that the rollout of Snow Leopard-despite the anticipated sales numbers-will pose any short-term threat to Microsoft within the enterprise.
"Apple has increased its market share notably over the past couple years, and partially that's due to how miserably Microsoft has done with Vista," Charles King said, "but they're still in the high single- or low double-digits compared to Microsoft. When Windows 7 comes out, I think it'll be harder for Apple to differentiate its platform."
During Microsoft's annual Financial Analyst Meeting on July 30, CEO Steve Ballmer suggested that Apple's market-share gains among consumers did not translate into a direct threat to Microsoft.
"Apple's share, globally, cost us nothing," Ballmer told an audience of analysts. "You can't be high-priced. That doesn't get us to the high volume that we aspire to."
However, Microsoft also needs Windows 7 to be a hit in 2009 if it wants to end the year on a stronger fiscal note, and data suggests that the enterprise might not be ready to play ball on that particular front. In a study by ScriptLogic, six in 10 companies surveyed had no plans to upgrade their computers immediately upon Windows 7's October release, although nearly 40 percent intended to have the operating system up and running by the end of 2010.
Another study, this one by Deutsche Bank, found that Windows 7 could achieve the same degree of penetration within the enterprise as Windows XP and Windows 2000 within 12 to 18 months.