Monday, 28 July 2014

Platform War: II

Before I start this article I need to go into a bit of history. I didn't want to write a novel length piece so I have rushed through the history because there is a lot of it.

In 1984 Steve Jobs famously unveiled the Macintosh. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak witnessed a "new" operating system idea, developed by Xerox PARC called a graphical user interface - mouse, keyboard and icons on a screen. Bill Gates was also aware of this technology and his company started to develop Windows. The platform war had started.

In the beginning everybody thought that Apple would win easily. Windows 1.0 was released after the Mac and was a bit of a joke. It was not even a true operating system being an extension of MS-DOS. The Mac was easier to use, looked nice, was reliable and its look and feel was consistent whether you were in a word processor or a game - it was very intuitive.

The only issue about the Mac was it didn’t have a broad range of games. Also it was difficult to take the cover off a Mac and modify it. Computer nerds of that time had already learned a large number of DOS commands - they didn’t need a GUI. Computer game developers were also already entrenched in writing games for DOS machines. There were games like the Wing Commander series, Kings Quest and many more.

Macintosh gradually lost out, Apple lost Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became supreme dictator of planet Earth.

Steve Jobs was down but not out - and he seemed to have an uncanny ability to predict the future. He started a new company called NeXT and they started to develop an operating system built on top of UNIX grabbing lots of good stuff from UNIX’s multiple flavours both proprietary and open source. When NeXT was acquired by Apple - Steve Jobs came with it. The operating system developed by NeXT laid the foundation for OS X.

Apple devices now had a consistent operating system right across the spectrum from handhelds to servers. The iPhone and iTunes saved Apple.

Now we are entering a new technological phase with the creepy name the Internet of things (IoT). There are all these embedded computer systems popping up such as the Rasberry Pi, Beagle Bone and the Intel Galileo, Arduino Yun not to mention a number of home entertainment systems. The vast majority of these devices have flavours of Linux installed. Your toaster may one day have a version of Linux installed.

Linux is the child of UNIX and OS X is its rich uncle. Many developers use Macintoshes these days as they are (mostly) compatible with the plethora of Linux and UNIX Systems. "UNIX like" - heard this phrase? Including Android, we can now say that most computers on this planet are now driven by UNIX derivatives.

Meanwhile Microsoft has had its head under a rock continuing to focus on big business and proprietary systems. Yes they have the Xbox and Windows phone, but they have lost a huge amount of territory and didn’t even bother fighting to protect it.

Now belatedly Microsoft has started to make a few fumbling steps in the right direction. There is the One Windows philosophy which aims to do for Microsoft what OS X did for Apple. Windows on PC, tablet or phone will share a single app store and the same development environment. And there is this: Windows Developer Program for IoT. I signed up but haven’t heard back.

It looks like Microsoft is trying to make up for lost time, but I can’t help thinking they are way too late. It’s going to be interesting to see if Microsoft can change their business model to compete with Linux and OS X. Microsoft needs to understand that somebody isn’t going to buy a Rasberry Pi for $50 and then spend $100 on a Windows operating system. People also will not buy a toaster that periodically suffers the blue screen of death.

Microsoft does have a couple of things going for it.
1. The support of big business.
2. The bewildering array of UNIX-like operating systems I feel is a hindrance to development, while Microsoft only needs to worry about one family of operating systems.
3. Inertia. There are large numbers of people like me who continue to use Windows.
4. Games. Although this is slipping a bit with some titles now being made cross platform.

The second platform war has started and there have already been casualties – think XNA. Microsoft was victorious in the last war, but this one will be a hell of a lot harder and I am doubtful that Microsoft will triumph. Steve Jobs may win from beyond the grave.

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