|Saturday, August 1, 2009
06:54 - Well, I'll be switched
Part of John Gruber's much-linked-and-discussed recent treatise on Microsoft's declining fortunes of late (and its followups) has to do with whether Windows 7 will cause people to switch back to Windows from the Mac.
But which to choose as the primary platform? Many chose one, many chose the other. But it was an interesting test group, because they were exposed to both platforms. These web developers were not like the people who, in a form of tribalism, claim to despise one or other other platform without having actually used it. Web developers had to know both the Mac and Windows, at least with passing familiarity, and the truth is that many, if not most, preferred Windows.
Today that is simply no longer the case. Microsoft has lost all but a sliver of this entire market. People who love computers overwhelmingly prefer to use a Mac today. Microsoft’s core problem is that they have lost the hearts of computer enthusiasts. Regular people don’t think about their choice of computer platform in detail and with passion like nerds do because, duh, they are not nerds. But nerds are leading indicators.
This is true in many markets with broad appeal, not just computers. Microsoft is looking ever more so like the digital equivalent of General Motors. Car enthusiasts lost interest in GM’s cars long before regular people did; the same is happening with Windows.
Or consider cameras. Companies like Canon and Nikon make most of their money from consumer-level point-and-shoot cameras. But they are intensely competitive at the high end of the market, too. Enthusiasts are valuable customers not just because they themselves buy expensive products, but because they, as enthusiasts, tend to recommend products in their area of expertise to others. The photo nerd who’s delighted with their $2,500 Canon SLR is likely to recommend a lot of $250 Canon point-and-shoots to friends and family.
Vista was a disaster for Microsoft. Windows 7 is, supposedly, the light at the end of the tunnel. But the best consensus about Windows 7 is only that it’s not going to be a complete and total clusterfuck like Vista. That it’s something XP users will actually want to upgrade to. Something that, when it comes pre-installed on a new machine, will not prompt questions about how to downgrade to XP.
But no one seems to be arguing that Windows 7 is something that will tempt Mac users to switch, or to tempt even recent Mac converts to switch back. It doesn’t even seem to be in the realm of debate. But if Windows 7 is actually any good, why wouldn’t it tempt at least some segment of Mac users to switch? Windows 95, 98, and XP did.
In a followup he quotes Harry McCracken saying that "History suggests that people don’t like to switch operating systems". And that's worth looking at in detail with regard to his camera metaphor, which is more relevant in this case than the car metaphor. Cars are interchangeable. Operating systems, like SLRs, are not.
When you buy a $2500 SLR from Canon or Nikon, you're not just spending $2500 on a camera and heading for the hills for a happy day of shooting; you're spending $2500 plus however much money you're prepared to plunk down on lenses. Either you're starting from scratch in the SLR world (in which case you should budget for probably three times the price of your camera body for a serviceable set of lenses of commensurate quality); or you've already got a set of lenses which already cost you a few thousand. And, crucially, those lenses will only work with one camera brand. Canon lenses are not interchangeable with Nikon lenses, which are not interchangeable with Sony/Minolta or Panasonic or Pentax lenses. Which is why the guy who puts down $2500 on a new Canon SLR is making a pretty big brand loyalty decision, a bigger one than it seems at first when he just recommends a $250 point-and-shoot to his family. If he's going to switch brands, he's throwing away (or, well, Ebaying) not just $2500 worth of investment; it's more like $10,000. And committing to making that same investment all over again with a new brand. That's a big decision.
Operating systems are a lot more like cameras than cars in this way. You can switch from GM to Ford, or GM to BMW, without a lot of fanfare; you just buy the car and drive it home on the same roads and stick it in the same garage where you had your old car. Beyond that you're still the same guy, until the point where the BMW begins to seep its eldritch curse into your brain and cause you to start cutting across gore points and swerving between lanes. Other than that, though, a car is a car is a car. And you can always switch back without trashing your investment.
People don't like switching operating systems for the hell of it. Granted, this varies a lot depending on their expertise; a computing novice won't have that much investment into a given OS with regard to expensive third-party software and entrenched music/photo collections that have to be migrated over, but he'll also be a lot more reliant on rote step-by-step instructions and muscle memory for getting various tasks done. Conversely, a power user will be a lot better equipped to make the switch if he decides to, but he's got a much tougher (and more expensive) row to hoe when it comes to moving his whole digital life and all the apps that support it over to a new platform. Switching isn't easy no matter who you are.
If Windows 7 is going to tempt any switchers, it'll probably be people who have never used Windows and are simply curious. People who grew up on a Mac. Because there are quite a few of those now: kids who came of age since 2001 or so, who have no memory of the pre-Mac-OS-X era or a time without iPods, and no experience with Windows other than an occasional gaming session at a friend's or some Windows-centric class at school. These won't be people who switched from Windows to the Mac and now want to give Microsoft another chance. For that latter group to have made that decision to begin with was quite a momentous occasion, and it's astounding that Apple has been so successful in coaxing so many people to do it. They're not going to go through all that again, in reverse; not without an extremely good reason. Because as regards software they'd have to buy and new techniques they'd have to learn, enough time has passed that they'd essentially be starting over from scratch again.
My suspicion is that the field of potential "switchers" in the world has become very small. Anyone who had the wherewithal to switch in the first place has already done so, from Windows to the Mac; and now they're no longer potential switchers, because they don't want to go through all that again. New users entering the market are doing so at a smaller rate than they used to, because computing is so ubiquitous now; and those new users are now spread a lot more equitably across the two platforms than they used to, so of that group the ones who are susceptible to the urge to switch will just be swapping market share with their counterparts in the same uninvested part of the market. And like the rest of the world, most of them will only have one "switch" in them.
In other words, I think the only "switching" that Windows 7 will inspire anyone to do is "from XP".