Microsoft Signature

Apple, Microsoft, and the Success of PCs

Microsoft Signature

Maybe the disaster of Lenovo may help save the PC sales business.

The world’s leading brand of PCs got into a lot of trouble when customers discovered a program called Superfish, ostensibly designed as a shopping aid but leaving computers vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, had been installed on Lenovo brand computers – not ThinkPads (( Computers, like ThinkPads, designed for business use are typically sold with much cleaner installations. Of course, a fair number of consumer units end up in businesses, especially small companies. )) — between September, 2014 and January, 2015. It was an obvious example of how PC makers load machines with junk to bring in a little more revenue.

But the Superfish (( Ars Technica offers a good technical piece describing Superfish and related offerings.)) mistake also illustrates an important reason why Microsoft has some serious work to be done on the practices of its partners. They’ll need it if Windows is to prevent the loss of the profitable end of the PC market to Apple, whose Mac sales are rising as the rest of the industry declines. When you buy a Mac, you don’t have to worry about what is on the machine. Third parties are never allowed to add applications and, should you for any reason not want one of the standard Apple apps, you may easily delete it.[pullquote]Retail margins are so small, manufacturers can’t bring themselves to reject the idea of third-party apps.[/pullquote]

Manufacturers of Windows PCs buy the OS from Microsoft but are free to add third-party applications. They can add programs they have actually designed themselves or third party products, like Superfish or the common anti-virus programs, in exchange for payment. Retail margins are so small, manufacturers can’t bring themselves to reject the idea.

Annoying but harmless Most of the stuff loaded on Windows PCs is annoying but harmless. Typically, it offers a brief amount of free use, requiring a payment or subscription to go on. I have seen many PCs of less-than-expert users that have been in use for years with uninstalled third party add-ons sitting on the desktop. But then, dangerous software like Superfish comes along. The only good news is, despite end-of-the-world warnings from some commentators, evidence of losses is rare. So far, there have been a couple of attempted class-action suits, one brought by a woman who complains Superfish caused pictures of “scantily clad women” to turn up on her Yoga PC.

Microsoft these days seems to realize the problem. It is offering a plan called Signature on PCs it sells itself, both online and through the limited number of Microsoft retail stores, with no software junk added. Microsoft even takes a poke at its own partners’  plans on its  Signature sales web site (see picture above.) And although many of the Windows PCs are top models at prices similar to Macs, the Signature includes some very inexpensive laptops, including the Hewlett-Packard Stream 11 for $199. The same Stream is available directly from HP for 99 cents more; it includes several HP apps (but no indication of third-party apps).

Un-Apple-like margins The problem the makers have is extremely low, un-Apple-like, margins. HP, Dell, and Lenovo can probably get decent margins out of lines their enterprise market PCs. The prices of those systems tend to be well below Macs but, by the time you upgrade their base capabilities to match a base Mac, the price is close to a MacBook. For example, a ThinkPad X1 Carbon laptop with a 14″ display costs just about the same as a $1,999 MacBook 15″ with a Retina display after you match MacBook components with an Intel i7 processor, maximum pixel display, and 256 GB in solid state storage.

Prices of retail laptop and desktop Windows units aimed at consumers, except for low volume but expensive game machines, are fiercely priced. Therefore, any addition they can add from a third party is attractive if it adds a bit of revenue.

I doubt Lenovo’s Superfish experience will lead it to drop third-party software, but it may at least make it and other manufacturers more careful. “We messed up,” Lenovo CTO Peter Hortensius told Ina Fried of Re/code (( Insiders looking for more on Lenovo’s challenge should check out The Lasting Impact of Lenovo’s Adware Crisis. )) “We should have known going in that that was the case. We just flat-out missed it on this one, and did not appreciate the problem it was going to create.”

Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

21 thoughts on “Apple, Microsoft, and the Success of PCs”

  1. Yes and no. OEM’s should be free to load the machines, but they have to assume full responsibility for what they load. If the OEM itself is a victim it should pursue damages from the third party that damaged them. That is not the customer’s problem. The third party didn’t sell the malware to the customer, the OEM did. Lenovo fully deserves the heat they are getting.

    As far as costs go, I adamantly disagree that Windows machines are more expensive, spec for spec. Case in point, I was going to get the Dell XPS 13 last week. This would have been my first Dell. It’s gorgeous. The i7 (5th Gen), 8GB, 256GB SSD version listed for $1,600. It also had a 3K resolution touch screen. Yes, it was a Signature Edition. No MBA comes close to those specs, and the closest one costs $1,750.

    Upon arriving at the MS store, I spotted the Dell Inspiron 13 2 in 1. It had an i7 (5th Gen), 8 GB, and 500 GB Hybrid HD. It had 1920 display. $800. It does support Active Stylus (styli are pretty much becoming mandatory for me, I like them). It’s slightly thicker and slightly heavier than the XPS. More importantly, the RAM and HD are not soldered in. It is upgradable! I got one on the spot. Went right to Microcenter and picked up a Samsung 850 500 GB SSD for $350. Total cost $1,150. First off, you can’t get a MacBook with those features, and you could never add them.

    These are not “cherry picked” examples, they are quite representative of my experience for at least the past 15 years. The main value of a Mac is OSX, which is a fine OS. Since Win7, Windows is a fine OS as well. If OSX is more important to you, get a Mac.

    1. Yes and no. I won’t comment on the accuracy of your “dollar for dollar spec for spec” comparison. But I would like to comment that you are overlooking a few factors. This seems to be a common thing with Windows customers, who glibly allow that a person may get a Mac if OSX is “more important” to them…

      The usual “Ease of use” stuff aside, I would just like to pull out something about displays since you touched on displays. It’s not about the numbers (again with the spec lists). It’s about how pixels are displayed. There is a reason that creative professionals of all types (graphics to video professionals, etc) choose Macs and always have. It’s not for fashion: It’s called accuracy. Color and reproductive accuracy, for example. “WYSIWYG” is a little more obtainable on Macs. The sub-pixel rendering of fonts is so much better, and the PDF and then Quartz rendering engines have always been far more accurate. There’s just no comparison. No matter how “good” or new a PC display is, I always shudder if its pixels are run by Windows.

      Speaking of input, the Apple touch pad on Apple laptops (and external option in place of mouse for desktops) is incredible, with full gestures like iOS. There really is no comparison on the Windows side.

      Of course, all this relates to OS X, but they are very much hardware examples.

          1. Wouldn’t it make more sense for an MBA to use a Gatling gun? I mean, if I go through all that trouble and I’m stuck with an axe, I’ll never get to level 12.

    2. What a strange new world we live in when people now have to defend against the accusation that Windows machines are MORE expensive spec-for-spec than Macs.

        1. What’s strange is you think people are shocked that Macs (anything Apple) are high-end & therefore cost more.

          We’re not. We know.

          1. Do you have ANY idea what you’re talking about? You’re trolling ME as a Mac fan? That’s just too funny for words!

            Ask anyone on these boards where I stand on the matter.

          2. You should work in government.

            You’d fit right in.

            Parking enforcement at the local level.., Maybe the VA, Social Security Administration, Department of Agriculture

            You would be perfect.

    1. Then post away and put up you’re own free ad for Windows. Or Android. Or whatever it is you wish to promote. lol.

    2. It’s worse … for you … than that. It’s the clearest evidence ever not to purchase Windows or Android based devices. Both. Google and Microsoft suck all the profit out of these devices, leaving the OEMs sucking. Period.

      1. Don’t you know that’s because idiots with too much money buy Apple junk. Haven’t you been paying attention? Or is it worshipping at the Apple altar? I get confused why. Who is sucking what again?

      1. You’re just an idiot.

        And old… sad… delusional person that’s losing their minds.

        You think you see ads in your mind.. Those are delusions.

        You’ll start hearing voices too

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