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Monday, April 07, 2008

The Philosophy of Computing Platforms (part 2)

World Dominance, Winner Take All

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

It was the early 1990s. The world was changing. No one knew how much it would change in such a few short years. Beyond the political--- the First Gulf War (1990-1991), the fall of the Soviet Union (1991) and the Comeback Kid Bill Clinton (1993) taking office, the nascent Internet was rising, a new operating system was humbly being born, all the while a global war for desktop computer dominance was reaching its pinnacle and would make Bill Gates and Paul Allen the richest men in the world.

Unknown to most people, the following year would be a landmark. Even while Windows was poised to become the One Operating System to Rule Them All, in 1991, a geek called Linus Torvalds from Helsinki with the aid of an Internet trying to grow, let loose Linux Kernel 0.1 and begun an underground revolution that would change the shape of the world. The emerging platform of the Internet also saw the birth of Mosaic, a web browser that would father Netscape (which would father Mozilla) and eventually bring to mainstream, a whole new network paradigm.

Let us rewind a bit to 1990. Windows 3.0 came into the fray and coupled with cheap hardware that PCs were notoriously known for, was on the road to global dominance. It was eroding Apple's market share. More people were buying PCs. It was commodity hardware that allowed everyone to have a PC. Who cared if it looked like Frankenstein? The market needed gear that worked and worked cheaply.

On Apple's corner, the momentum of Macintosh five years early was ebbing. High cost of the machine, lack of interoperability with the rest of the world proved to be a bane. Windows was slowly alienating their competitor in the broader war. Brute force won over elegance. Who needed Beauty when Frankenstein could do the same things Beauty did?

In December 1992, development for NCSA Mosaic begun and in a few months found its way to Macs and Windows PCs. That browser called Mosaic would eventually become Netscape Navigator.

And where was IBM?

If the late 80s and early 90s was a golden age for Apple and the beginnings of a World Ruled by One Windows, by 1993, it was a dark time for IBM. Big Blue was entrenched with difficulties at home. In fact, IBM was dying and dying quickly. The gigantic Elephant that was IBM was hemorrhaging money. IBM Boss at the time, Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., recounted in his book, "Who Says Elephants Can't Dance," April 1993:

At the end of May, I saw April's results, and they were sobering. Profit had declined another $400 Million, for a total decline of US$800 million for the first four months. Mainframe sales had dropped 43 percent during the same four months. Other large IBM businesses--- software, maintenance, and financing--- were all dependent, for the most part, on mainframe sales and thus, were declining as well. The only part of the company that was growing was services, but it was a relatively small segment and not very profitable. Head count had declined slightly, from 302,000 at the beginning of the year to 298,000 at the end of April. Several business unites, including application-specific software and our semiconductor businesses, were struggling.

It was clear that in 1993 the First Desktop and Operating System War was over. The Windows Flag flew proudly. IBM was dying and even Gerstner acknowledged IBM's defeat, with 5% to 6% OS/2 market share, IBM exited the PC Operating System business. And Apple? By the time Windows 95 rolled out, Apple was lost, searching for a way to recapture the glory days of Macintosh.

Windows wasn't the technically superior of either OS/2 or Mac OS (well at least in those early days of the 1990s). Windows had copied Mac OS' Graphical User Interface and gave PC users a semblance of the easy of use of the Mac. Windows PCs continued on the legacy of the 1980s. Windows ran a very open, PC architecture.

If you think about it, the quick and dirty Frankenstein approach was the very philosophy of the PC. It was what made it successful. Like the pioneers of early flight, who cared how it looked, just as long as it flew. Who cared if it had seat belts or cup holders or soft leather seats? For the longest time, it was the same with the PC.

And of course they needed an Operating System to run it and Microsoft was the only one who sold it. By the time Windows 95 came out, it was pretty much a certainty that everyone who had heard of computers, all pointed to Microsoft Windows' Start button to begin their day.

In the same way that the PC was a geek project, Windows in many ways reflected the worst of being geek. Its interface reflected the enthusiasts' idea of interface. Never mind, if everybody else had to learn it. It was for a lack of a better term, crude. But it worked. And people put up with it.

So the world had standardized on PCs. The world standardized on the philosophy of Frankenstein, after all it got the job done. People would put up with the endless reboots and crashes. If you were writing a paper and the machine crashed and you forgot to save, tough man. People would put up with blue screens of death, of viruses, of worms and trojans that had become such a part of life in a Windows PC world. It was a device everybody could buy and build and build to meet their own need so people bought into the Frankenstein Philosophy.

Could Microsoft had fixed it? perhaps. perhaps not. Why fix a well oiled machine when nobody was going to beat you? It was perhaps the price of a monopoly that continued to hunt Microsoft. Perhaps, it may not even be that but the inherent Frankensteinsim of the PC itself with its myriad combinations and legacy devices and applications that Windows had got to support. Windows needed to keep the past going. Perhaps, we can lay blame on the hubris of the victor and for sitting on their laurels for lack of technical vision for what the future held and we can even blame the nascent technology.

If you've lived in those days, it would have been evident that the dust had settled. Game over. Little would everyone know that the next chapter wasn't about to begin, it had already begun in 1989 with the birth of the Web.

The wheel was once more poised to turn.