This year has seen a resurgence in the battle between Apple and Microsoft. While you might think was just another petty squabble by two computer companies about market share, the heart of the conflict is between Apple and the many companies that sell computer systems running Microsoft Windows.

Microsoft's argument has been that PCs (despite the fact that "PC" stands for "personal computer," it has become ingrained in people's minds as meaning "a computer running Windows") cost less than Apple computers, while offering the exact same features. Since Apple's transition to Intel processors, it has become possible to compare Apple's offerings to those of other computer manufacturers. Looking strictly at hardware specifications, Macs have always cost more than their competitors.1

Apple's counterpoint has always been that their "Macs" simply work better and with less problems. Looking at an Apple advertisement, one would be forgiven for thinking that Apple laptops were the perfect computers, never crashing or freezing, nor having any issues with viruses or recognizing peripheral devices. Since these issues are either a normal part of owning a computer2 or a direct result of actions taken by the user of the computer3, this is completely false. I regularly run into people who are convinced that all they need to do is buy a Mac, and they will never have any computer problems again.

I am not sure that there is anything more that Microsoft can do to fix this issue. They have already made significant strides in putting Windows Vista, the most hated operating system since Windows ME4, out of the public view. None of their recent advertisements mention it by name. Its successor, Windows 7, is scheduled for release later this year.

But while Microsoft cannot do anything more to tip the battle in its favor, the companies who actually sell you Windows computers can. Dell, Lenovo, HP, Sony, and the other companies known as OEMs all customize Windows before they sell you a computer. This includes pre-installing software. While some of this software is useful, either by providing added functionality or by allowing manipulation of the system's unique hardware features, much of it is useless and has only been added to the computer because its makers were willing to pay money.5

I challenge OEMs to stop this practice. As I have previously written, one advantage of Apple is that they control both the hardware and software on their computers. When you receive your shiny new MacBook Pro, you can be confident that all of the software on it has been vetted by Apple, if not written by them. The result is a cohesive environment, full of applications that work well together. Most OS X users I know install few additional applications.6

Despite not having the same degree of control as Apple, especially over matters relating to their computer's operating system7, OEMs have the ability to create a user environment full of software that the purchasers of their laptops actually want to use. While preinstalling full versions of high-quality software on machines would eliminate a significant amount of the price difference between OEMs and Apple8, I think it is clear that "switchers" to Apple are willing to pay this price despite the fact that it means transitioning to a new operating system. Based on this, it is reasonable to assume that a larger proportion of people would switch to a different OEM, even if it meant having to purchase computers that cost a bit more, assuming that they "worked better" that lower-priced models from other companies. Despite this, there have only been a few half-hearted attempts to sell higher-end Windows computers, like the ThinkPad Reserve Edition9. I think a more sincere, long-term effort would create better results and increase customer loyalty.

  1. I think a large part of the increase in Apple's laptop sales over the past few years were the result of their aggressive pricing on MacBooks; the entry level model's price was $999. While these computers were woefully underpowered (with only 512 MB of RAM and a CD drive unable to burn DVDs), the fact that they cost less than $1000 but were clearly Mac laptops (running a full version of OS X and having a similar feature set to the MacBook Pro) was important. While Apple's entry level MacBook is still $999, it is clear just from looking at the newer unibody MacBooks and MacBook Pros that the white polycarbonate MacBook is obsolete. 

  2. I wish there was a simple way to get people without electrical engineering backgrounds to realize that a computer is a complex electronic device with many sensitive components. Because of this, there is an significant chance that one or more of the components will fail during the normal lifetime of the computer. When this occurs, the computer might suffer from reduced functionality or stop working. 

  3. Some examples:

  4. The similarities between Windows ME and Windows Vista are significant. Both had an extremely successful predecessor (Windows 98, Windows XP) which they were inevitably compared to. Both failed the comparison because of stability and usability issues. Both were also quickly eclipsed by their successors (Windows 2000, Windows 7).

    The primary difference is also significant. While Windows ME was basically Windows 98 with increased instability (the most significant difference I could find between a high school friend's Windows ME laptop and my Windows 98 desktop at home was that his computer included Spider Solitaire, Windows Vista has improved security (from not having Autorun execute programs automatically, to taking Windows Update out of Internet Explorer and putting it in the Control Panel) and multiple new features not found in Windows XP.

    Many of the criticisms levied at Windows Vista (that it was unstable, or that hardware did not work properly on it, or that its security features were useless) were originally levied at Windows XP. While Service Pack 1 of that operating system fixed some of these issues, Windows XP did not become the stable platform that people are currently comparing to Windows Vista until Service Pack 2 - the free upgrade that provided enough differentiation that some at Microsoft considered releasing it as a new operating system. Windows Vista Service Pack 2 has not been released yet. 

  5. Lenovo's Mark Kohut explains why OEMs pre-install software on their computers:

    And part of what many consider “junk” are the many programs that we vendors load into our preload before we ship it to you, our customers. Now let’s be honest. We load up this software because we receive money from the vendors to do so. You as a consumer are much more likely to buy the full or upgraded version of a program if you already have it preinstalled. This is worth real money to PC vendors. On the other hand, it works both ways. It is this revenue from the software that helps fuel the PC price war. You all directly benefit from this practice. Without it, PC prices would be more than a few dollars higher.

  6. Since almost all the people I know who use Apple computers are in the 18-25 range, I would surmise that the top three additional applications would be Microsoft Office, Mozilla Firefox, and some sort of peer-to-peer or Bittorrent client. Office, Firefox, and the most popular P2P applications on OS X all also run on Windows as well. It is also possible that part of the reason that OS X users install less applications is because a smaller number of applications are available to them. 

  7. Yes, an OEM could have complete control over their operating system by installing Linux, but it is clear that the majority of the population wants Microsoft Windows. OEMs who have embraced Linux have done so in order to reduce their support costs, not because they support some kind of free software revolution. 

  8. A significant amount of the costs will not come from purchasing the software itself, but through support costs and extensive testing, to ensure that customers can use the additional software. 

  9. The Thinkpad Reserve Edition was targeted towards CEOs and other people with too much disposable cash - hence its' "Executive Support" options, which included a commitment to providing on-site support within 4 hours. Concepts like this are not useful to those segments of the computing population who cannot spend $5,000 on a computer. What I am suggesting are "premium" computers for "normal" consumers.