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Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Philosophy of Computing Platforms (Part 1)

The Beauty and The Beast: the Age of Commodity Computing

"Why is the Mac immune to criticism on Application Integration at the Operating System Level?" I was asked this question over at twitter by @digitalfilipino in response to my posting this link by on Windows 7 development. What follows is my train of thought on the matter.

Is the fundamental difference between platforms all about philosophy and human nature?

The story began, a long time ago, in a time, far, far away. There were two Steves, a Paul and a Bill. The age of the minicomputer was on. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started a small business upstart called Apple that sold computers. Bill Gates and Paul Allen on the other hand began a software company called Microsoft, founded to sell BASIC interpreters.

Even back then, the startling differences in their corporate philosophies was evident and those differences would shape not just their companies, the information technology industry but society at large. Apple was always an integrated company, shaped by the vision and natural salesmanship and personality of Steve Jobs and driven by the engineering genius of Woz. Apple since its inception has been a synergy of those great things. And Microsoft? Its relentless software focus, and core geek philosophy of its founders would take shape in the very operating system which they would use to dominate the world.

PCs for everyone was the dream but it wasn't until the early 1980s that computers started to become commodities and enter the mainstream. Enter the IBM PC.

Before the InterWeb, PCs were islands onto themselves. No one bothered with wires, Lans and Wifis. Want data passed between computers? Someone hands you a disk. You used those archaic devices called "Floppy disks". Call 'em the precursors of the CD, the usb flash drive. The PC as was the Apple before it, was birthed by the Philosophy of the age: do it yourself computers. The difference was, the PC was an Open Architecture meaning anybody could simply design hardware that could work with the PC.

By creating an Open Architecture, IBM had created what we call today, a "community". People would come in, design a hardware that would work for the PC because the standard was freely available to everyone and no matter who manufactured the PC, that device was guaranteed to work. The appeal was that anybody could build a PC from scratch to do what they want it to do.

A computer without software is like a human without a soul, without a consciousness thus, merely a pile of wires, silicon and plastic.

Operating Systems are the consciousness and unconsciousness in humans. Part of it directs everything we humans want the computer to do. Operating Systems know where to write a piece of data into the drive. It tells the DVD-ROM the instructions to spin when we humans want to watch a movie. It knows that the keyboard is a keyboard and not a mouse. It translates our keyboard and mouse interaction into what the computer could do.

So IBM at the dawn of the PC era, needed an Operating System to run the computer. In a bit of luck or faith for one Redmond company, the Operating System was subcontracted by IBM to Microsoft. This Operating System wasn't an Open Architecture as the PC was. Nobody cared back in the day about that. People were perfectly happy that Microsoft kept the OS growing. It didn't even talk to other computers as our computers do today. The network was farther off into the future.

The explosion of the PC hardware because it was an Open Architecture sent entrepreneurs building their own version of the PC. Businesses sprung like mushrooms building devices for the PC. There were video cards, and sound cards and hard drives were soon mainstream. It was like a sprawling bazaar where people could mix and match hardware. This Openness helped create business. By seeding the world with PC hardware, IBM had made possible the commodification of computers. But all of this hardware had to talk to the computer. Microsoft's Operating System needed to know all of those diverse devices. Want your sound card to play on every PC in the world? You had to write a device driver for Microsoft's Operating System.

And where was the nascent Internet of the time? It was silently cooking the back rooms of Universities, through copper wires and phone lines, through Electronic Bulletin Boards, ARPANET and USENET what would eventually become the web remained in the providence of hackers and university researchers.

In 1984, Apple launched the Macintosh. It was a tiny box that was revolutionary. And Apple's iconic 1984 advertising for that event also started the trend of Superbowl ads. It was a well made computer. It was a computer in a box--- it wasn't just a commodity, it was an appliance like a Television is. Needless to say this vision of the future foreshadows where the IT industry is now head towards. Like many things Apple, it was ahead of its time. One might argue that sometimes, Apple is too ahead and quite often, such out of the box thinking is not appreciated by the market, at least not initially.

It wasn't to say nobody did. The amazing Apple platform, dazzled many. It opened up the Graphical User interface and introduced the mouse and we've all pointed and clicked away towards interacting with the Computer. Apple pioneered the Laser printer and ushered in the Desktop Publishing business. It revolutionized fonts and how we display information on the computer. And Five Years later, the innovation, if not the platform the Macintosh began would be the standard the world over.

And in all this Apple was true to its calling of building a package that ran well, that looked good, that was revolutionary, that worked.

But by 1985, a civil war had broken out at Apple. And Steve Jobs found himself kicked out of the very company he founded. Exiled, Steve Jobs may have found himself, young, bright and talented, he would find himself very much a serial entrepreneur founding two companies during his post Apple days. One company was called NeXT and the other Pixar. The first company ran on Unix with futuristic designs and Pixar would later create the world's first animated feature presentation. His story is far from over.

With Jobs gone from the picture, Apple still continued to rise, fueled by the revolution that was Macintosh. "A golden age," wiki quotes MacAddict was the time between 1989 and 1991.

The Operating System War of the late 1980s and early 1990s was much about platform as it was about philosophy. The Mac had pioneered the Graphical User Interface, but Windows brought the same technology to the PC side. A competition arose between the two philosophies. One based on open hardware and combined with Windows created a machine that could only be characterized as a Beast: Frankenstein. The other, elegant, graceful and was simply Beauty.

The momentum the PC was on since the early 80s fueled the tide into Microsoft's and the PCs' favor. Commodity hardware was what the market needed and wanted. Sure, grace and elegance mattered but it was a young industry. It needed to be cheap enough, rough around the edges didn't matter. What mattered was to be adapted the world over and grace and elegance did not come cheap. Quite naturally, Market forces dictated that people love Frankenstein.

The First Desktop and Operating System wasn't just between Windows and Mac OS. IBM was losing control of the business that they had founded. After making a device that was Open, virtually every company in the world would be making their own PC. Companies other than IBM were growing and winning over the PC and IBM was just lost on the hardware business. When IBM looked at the software side, they came to realize what what they had done with Microsoft, so started the war between Windows and OS/2.

Do you remember Jobs' NeXt Computer? Well, in March 1989 saw the birth of the World Wide Web by Timothy Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau and the staff at CERN and a NeXTcube was used by Berners-Lee as the world's first Web server and was also used to write the first web browser.

And so the 1980s ended with Microsoft fighting a War against IBM on the Operating System at the PC front while battling it out with Apple on the broader market. The prize was the only prize worth fighting for: World Dominance, winner take all.