Apple Windows Vista was nothing less than a gift for Apple and its Mac OS operating system. But evidence suggests the firm failed to capitalise on its opportunity.

While it's true that Apple has significantly grown its share of the desktop OS market since the release of Windows Vista in November 2006, the company's market share remains below 10 percent, and Apple's share actually dropped in Q1 2009, according to Gartner's Worldwide PC Shipment report.

To most observers, it's fairly clear that Windows Vista's failings gave people a reason to take a fresh look at the Mac. And in its own right, Mac OS X has become a robust, reliable and feature-rich OS. It appeals both to the techie attracted to its Unix underpinnings and the neophyte who wants a computer that just works. Apple also appeals to professionals in audio, video, graphic arts and publishing.

But Steve Jobs and company have been too stingy with their bottom lines. While it's hard to criticise a company that does a good job catering to the top 10 percent of the consumer market, resulting in unusually robust profit margins, I would like to have seen Apple extend an open hand to extend its reach into the top 25 to 30 percent of computer consumers. It'll need to go after these customers as economic problems whittle away the number of high-end buyers at the Apple Store.

To do this, the company will need a few more products.

1. A netbook: Steve Jobs says Apple doesn't know how to make a sub-£300 computer that isn't garbage. I'm not convinced. If Acer and Asus can make a pretty nifty package for under £200, Apple certainly could have sold one for £300 and still maintained a healthy profit margin. They could have added a touchscreen that supported gestures and multi-touch on top of a full-featured OS like Mac OS X. Customers - particularly the Mac faithful - would have eaten them up at £350 to £450 a pop. People are hungry for a product like this, so much so that there are a number of websites that will give you step-by-step instructions for converting the most popular netbooks into 'hackintoshes'.

Instead we have only rumours of an oversized and overpriced iPod touch. Who cares about a product like that? We're only willing to put up with the keyboard-less iPhone because it's a reasonable compromise for a device that's supposed to fit in your pocket. For something with a 8.9in to 10.2in screen, I want a keyboard and a full desktop OS (one that, you know, actually works with Flash). The product the rumour mill is buzzing about would be as successful as the Apple Newton or the Sony Magic Touch. ("Magic what?" Exactly.)

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2. A mid-range desktop PC: For desktop users, our current choices are the underpowered, yet still overpriced Mac Mini, the limited expandability of the iMac line, and the powerful but appropriately pricey Mac Pro. There are tons of people who want a mid-priced mini-tower that'll let them use whatever monitor they want, swap the video card, add additional drives, etc. Apple could sell the base model for £750, and plenty would pay.

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3. A business laptop: Apple could have got a real head start on desktop OS market share, but instead chose to play it close to the chest. The company stuck with its bread-and-butter profit strategy. This may have been the best thing for profitability in the short term, but had Apple been willing to cannibalise some of its existing product sales and been more aggressive in pricing, it could have taken a bigger chunk of the market. It could have had more leverage for even bigger profits in the years to come.

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Closing window of opportunity

Now, it may be too late. I'm not saying that Apple won't continue to be successful and profitable, only that a window of opportunity is closing.

Windows 7 is on the horizon. Preliminary responses show that people are excited about it. It addresses many of the complaints people had about Vista and provides a number of usability and performance enhancements. It probably won't be the whipping boy for Apple that Windows Vista has been.

In the end, Windows 7 may not really be better than Apple's Mac OS X, but it doesn't have to be. It just has to be pretty good. The Mac's nearly three-year window of opportunity to take the desktop market is just about to close. Apple could have done better.

See also:

Windows Vista SP2 beta review

Windows 7 RC1 review

Apple Mac OS X 10.5.5 review

Linux, Mac OS X, Vista and XP: head-to-head

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