I've just been working my way through hundreds of emails released as part of the Vista Capable lawsuit (if you want to read along at home with me, you can download them from here) and there's one phrase that keep coming across that might explain why Apple got the upper hand on Microsoft with Vista.
The phrase is "Good Better Best" and it's used by Microsoft engineers and executives to describe the different different Windows Vista experience that users would get depending on the level of hardware available.
Now, I'm not going to argue that on many levels, different hardware will give you a different experience. For example, a better GPU will give you a better gaming experience, better CPU will make transcoding video faster, a bigger hard drive lets you store more data, a TV tuner lets you ... well, you get the idea. But what happened with Windows Vista was that there was a transition point where the level of hardware (specifically the GPU) gave users a wholly different user interface experience. Whether you consider the Aero UI to be important or not, to the average consumer who'd seen Vista ads, it's a tough deal to explain why their Vista looks different to the Vista on TV or the Vista they saw in the store.
Enter Apple and the Mac. Having handled a number of Macs one thing stands out - the Mac experience on one model is pretty much the same as the Mac experience you get on another model. In fact, you can take an old Mac and upgrade the OS and get pretty much the same experience as buying a new Mac. Sure, the speed won't be the same, and how much you can store on the disk might be less, but the Mac experience doesn't vary that much from system to system.
Bottom line, the Mac experience removes uncertainty. You can be totally oblivious to GPUs, MHz, Intel, AMD, SATA, ATI, NVIDIA, [insert pretty much any term you can think of] ... buy a Mac, and get the same Mac experience as "Bill next door" or "Joe the Plumber."
Too many flavors, too many uncertainties ... I hope to see fewer of both of these as Windows 7 gets ready for launch. Microsoft needs to work closer with OEM partners to make the entry level as easy and as painless as possible for causal users who aren't interested in what makes their PCs tick. Right now, given that 50% of those buying Macs are new to the platform, I'd guess that things aren't as painless as they could be.
How much is certainty worth to the end user?