Flipping the Switch

Linux’s new popularity may hurt Apple more than Microsoft.

In the latest of his legendary keynote stage shows, Steve Jobs kicked off Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this morning in San Francisco by showing off the company’s speedy new aluminum G5 desktop Mac. But while listing the new machine’s impressive specs, Jobs left out a related, eye-popping statistic: Business Week columnist Alex Salkever dropped the bomb last week that next year, “Linux should pass Apple in market share for desktop operating systems on computers.”

Say what? A few calls to industry analysts confirmed that they’ve come to the same conclusion as Salkever: Steve’s new babies have been born into third place behind both Windows and Linux, which had been dubbed a desktop flop just two years ago.

The projected sales figures mark a turning point: The days when a new Mac on your desk was considered the stylish geek’s protest against Microsoft’s ubiquitous software (unless you could afford a $10,000 Sun workstation) have ended. There’s a new way to Think Different in town. Linux was Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds’ response to Sun’s pricing, but many more techies saw it as the ultimate weapon for their all-out software jihad against Microsoft (which, of course, owns Slate). But like another holy war, the Linux-Microsoft fight has resulted mostly in collateral damage. Instead of wiping out Windows, Linux evangelists have driven one after another of Microsoft’s competitors out of the operating system business. IBM, DEC, SCO, and finally Sun have lost the non-Windows portion of the server market to Linux, and no wonder: Linux is basically a better version of their Unix products, for free. The Penguinheads should have seen it coming. Compared to Microsoft’s server wares, Linux is an alternative worth considering, but against a $3,000 Unix license, it’s a no-brainer.

Now, with Linux’s emergence as an acceptable alternative for the consumer desktop, Apple is standing in position to become its next friendly-fire casualty. By blending gorgeous design with user-friendly software, Apple lets you buy your way out of the Microsoft world—aided by a hand-holding deal with Microsoft to help the two brands work well together. (On that note, Apple released a Windows configuration tool for its AirPort Extreme wireless network base station last week, eliminating one step in Slate’s recent “Wi-Fi for Dummies” article.) But it comes at a hefty premium: Apple’s new desktop models start at $1,999.

Linux takes the low road, price-wise. It’s not pretty, but it’s free, plus it’s lean and fast enough to run on a yellowed old PC from the storage room if you’re willing to spend a few hours getting the software installed and running. Or, for $248, you can buy a brand new, ready-to-use Linux desktop computer from Wal-mart.com. The bargain-basement price is possible because Torvalds and other Linux programmers don’t demand license fees. They either work on their software for free outside their day jobs, or they’ve convinced their employers to let them donate their work. As a brand, Linux is anti-corporate and anti-consumerist, but skip the neo-Marxist gift economy theories that have sprung up around Torvalds. He’s more like the Crazy Eddie of software: His prices are insaaane! Linux is fast, cheap, and reliable, in defiance of the old engineer’s adage that you can only have two out of three.

Sure, the new Mac operating system (code named Panther) is pretty slick—it’s also based on Unix, and partially open-sourced. And Jobs has made it clear he doesn’t compete on price, but on the more complex curve of price/performance, which includes factors such as ease of use, customer support, and interoperability with Microsoft—areas where Apple is way ahead of Linux. But with technology budgets frozen or slashed in most offices and homes, it’s getting harder to compete with free—unless you’re Microsoft. Every field in software seems to thin out to Microsoft and Someone Else. Usually, it’s Microsoft and Second Place, but this year’s game console wars illustrate the point, too: The entry of Microsoft’s Xbox hasn’t hurt first-place PlayStation 2. Instead, it bumped second-place Nintendo to third.

As the Unix wars proved, the software biz doesn’t have time for No. 3. The software developers in town for Apple’s conference today are mostly Mac-only coders, but their employers want to reach as broad an audience as possible, and as the saying in the industry goes, choose two. Apple still has software applications not available on Linux—such as Quark for publishing, or Photoshop for graphics—but if Salkever’s analyst buddies step forth and pronounce Linux the No. 2 platform, software companies will re-evaluate their commitments. No doubt the graphic designers and multimedia artists who have remained loyal to Macs will continue to buy them, but to grow Apple needs more Switchers to abandon Windows—and not for Linux.

Is the new Mac the fastest personal computer ever? Maybe, but that was Sun’s line, too. I’d love to do my work on a shiny new G5, but $248 is a lot closer to a free-lancer’s purchasing power these days. Unless Jobs unveils a better, faster economy at his next keynote, my next desktop computer will come from Wal-Mart.