Sharp Blue: The dominance of Microsoft


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In reply to my earlier article (in its incarnation as a comment on Meri’s weblog), someone called “dorkSpotter” commented:

Those losers that built that “poor production-oriented interface” called Windows are the richest people on the planet. Oh….that’s right, money is evil.

I certainly don’t think that money is evil. Indeed, my business card says “Richard Baker, physicist, entrepreneur” and my homepage says something similar. However, it certainly isn’t true that markets select technically superior products or services. Instead, they select products and services that are well adapted to the current economic environment (which includes, amongst other things, the current installed base for various other products). These two things may sometimes coincide, but in general they won’t.

This is especially true in the case of operating systems aimed at mass markets. The currently most popular operating system has a gigantic advantage, because it encourages application developers to target it, which means that there will be more and cheaper applications available for it, which in turn encourages more people to adopt the platform. This is the situation in which Microsoft currently operates. In fact, the primary competition for a new release of Windows is older releases of Windows, rather than, for example, Linux or MacOS X. All of which means that Microsoft isn’t maintaining its current position by technical superiority.

In fact, Microsoft didn’t even achieve its current position of dominance through technical excellence. Instead, it got there through outwitting IBM in strategy. Essentially, Microsoft beat its opposition in the 1980s by tying its operating system (MS-DOS, at the time) to an open hardware platform. Competition between IBM-compatible PC manufacturers meant that IBM-clone hardware was substantially cheaper than other systems, which meant that people tended to buy it, and hence to buy MS-DOS. The installed base of DOS computers by the late 1980s and early 1990s meant that Microsoft could weather the fiascos of the early versions of Windows - even Windows 3.1, the release that finally took off, was a pretty poor and confused interface as anybody else who had to suffer its use could confirm.

So why did IBM choose a CP/M-like operating system written by Microsoft rather than a more mature and sophisticated operating system like some brand of Unix? For the simple reason that Unix was developed for large, powerful computers, and desktop computers in the early 1980s were anything but powerful. What was needed was something that was incredibly simple. As desktop computers have advanced, Microsoft has, of course, converted Windows into a more Unix-like system.

It was thus only the emergence of a new niche, some canny business sense, and a fair amount of luck that allowed Microsoft OSs to win out. And there were clearly technically superior systems through this time, from the Amiga 1000 in the mid-1980s to the BeBox in the mid 1990s to machines running MacOS X today. None have been so overwhelmingly technically superior that they’ve been able to overcome the powerful effect of the Windows installed base.

Those that have won out in certain niches, such as the Amiga in video production in the years around 1990, have done so by targetting niches in which the installed base effect has been weak. Consumption-oriented interfaces might be (might have been?) another such niche. It’s certainly possible that Apple thinks so, and is targetting it with such things as iTunes and the iPod.

And, for that matter, Unix is just as much a product of the business world as any of the other systems I’ve discussed here. After all, it was produced by Bell Labs!

Unix was just as much a product of the business world as any of the others ... there is also Linux to contend with. Although Linux is essentially a Unix clone, it has been produced by volunteers and is the free software trump card. Interestingly, according to Slashdot, one of the main drivers in the Linux development at the moment is making Linux more desktop user accessible ... so possibly moving towards a more consumption-aimed paradigm.

Yes, undoubtedly there is also Linux. I should've mentioned that alongside the Amiga in my paragraph on niche systems. Linux, of course, essentially took over the web-server market segment because of Apache - an example of technical superiority winning in a totally new market.

I'm not so sure about Linux's chances on the desktop though. Much as I would like to love Linux, I've always found it a bit slow and clunky when I've tried it, although this was admittedly always on very old machines. It certainly doesn't seem as pleasant as I found Solaris.

I haven't found an operating system that I really like since AmigaOS 3, ten years ago. At the moment, I'm surviving on a mixture of a decade old Amiga and Windows XP Pro. However, like Simon, I'm currently lusting after Apple PowerBooks, although the new G4 iBooks look really nice too!

Calling Windows 'popular' is a semantic mistake. Outside a few zealots, it is not chosen, but accepted as the default.

Ubiquity should not be confused with popularity.

Yes, Kevin, you are in fact correct. It's a pleasure to encounter someone even more pedantic than I am. But there are more than a "few" Windows fans, and probably many who claim to be indifferent to such matters but then complain that everything else is weird and unfamiliar (my sister, for example, falls into this category).

I guess we have to wait for the next paradigm shift like what happened from DOS to GUI. The current OS's will become obsolete, so the whole market will be up for grabs. The company that wins is one that positions its self to take advantage of the shift.

But, what paradigm shift is likely? Voice? No, I don't think so. I used to, but the technology isn't moving fast enough. Distributed processing seems a more likely candidate. The hardware is getting cheaper as more of the computer is fit on a single chip. We are currently transiting from a 130 NM process to 90 NM which allows a 40 to 60 percent increase in transistors, and 45NM process is coming in 2005. More transistors can be can be used to increase speed, but also to make slower and cheaper all-in-one chips.

Many components now hooked by wires could be connected by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. These components need not be very fast to work well. Your screen can be anywhere in the house, or you can have screens in different rooms and your computer selects them-- the same for printers, keyboards, scanners and tablets.

You think Microsoft will be ready for this change? Yeah, in 2008.

Voice? No, I never really thought that voice recognition interface will be the future. Can you imagine an office-full of people talking to their computers? How about students using laptops in classrooms or secretaries in meetings. VR has limited use. Mac OS has had this capability (though rudimentary) and believe me, the cool factor does not last long enough and it gets pretty annoying after awhile.

dude that is so cool because they are liers because they said they made windows man well cya

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