Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Philosophy of Computing Platforms (part 3)

One Windows to Rule Them All

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

Bill Gates' dream that his software would run on every Computer in the world had come true. Windows in every PC made Gates and Paul Allen, two of the richest men in the world. The mid-1990s saw Windows reach the pinnacle of its success, a resounding commercial success. Perhaps, it is something about seeing someone successful that we want to pull them backdown to Earth. Perhaps, it is just the nature of all things that eventually something better comes along. However it was, after 1995, Microsoft would be perceived differently.

Unmistakably, Microsoft had taken the crown from IBM. If before the PC era, anybody who needed to buy right, all bought IBM. In the 1990s, you could never be wrong if you bought a Microsoft product. It of course was also helped that at the time, IBM was in the midst of a transformation themselves. And Apple Computer was in similar position as IBM, if not worst.

The world had changed in the 15 or so years since IBM launched the PC. It could be argued that the PC was the fundamental engine driving that change but something was already replacing the PC as the center of rapid growth. It was the maturing Network. The hardware was fast becoming ubiquitous. No longer were humans locked away as discrete islands. Humans and by extension Computers and the Data we keep, and manipulate in them, they needed to interact.

The Web was on the rise. Bill Gates had dismissed the web as the next big thing. But by 1995, even as Windows 95 was one of the most successful releases of the Operating System, clearly the Network was going to become huge. But this wasn't the vision of the future that Microsoft held. It was a time when Bill Gates didn't see the Internet as the next big thing. So Microsoft stayed away from the action, while others were building software to meet this emerging world order.

By the nature of its design and ecosystem, Windows was not a natural playmate of the network. I argue this reflects the geek attitude of Microsoft. The Windows heritage grew from islands of computers. But Windows and the PC that it ran on was the dominant platform ever. Every country, every person in the world relied on data being processed on desktop computers running Windows.

In the dark corners of the Internet, rebel hackers were sowing the seeds of dissent. Linux was born in 1991, and by 1994, the scientific community (particularly NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) gave birth to the Beowulf Project which in simplest terms was "Commodity Clustering". It was the idea of networking ordinary PCs to do the job of once expensive and proprietary Supercomputers. And it ran, a then largely unknown Operating System called Linux.

And while Windows was being cheered, adored and welcomed, Linux was being adapted across technical circles. It was the new Unix.

1995 was a landmark year. Red Hat Linux was born with the goal of packaging and selling the free operating system Linux. In the same year, Caldera was likewise founded. And the Apache Group build its version of its popular Webserver, Apache based on the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' HTTPd 1.3 series. And who could forget the birth of Yahoo! that same year?

A company called Netscape was an upstart that was poised to become the new Microsoft and by the time of the late 1990s--- Microsoft saw that it had to take on Netscape or else lose dominance. Microsoft of course got its Windows to play nice. Microsoft started to build web technologies and multimedia technologies with Windows. It was obvious. Maybe it was because of hubris--- Microsoft was the biggest baddest fish in the sea. They needed to expand Windows, add value for the customer base.

It was getting pretty clear by then that Microsoft was embracing the new world networked paradigm. Problem was, companies the world over were already taking advantage of it before Microsoft did. Companies like Netscape sold web browsers for example. It was their bread and butter. Nobody could ever doubt that at Redmond, the Killer Instinct was alive and well, so what happened next was also quite natural.

Netscape and Microsoft fought the First Browser War. IE versus Netscape, winner takes the Internet.