Tiger vs. Longhorn and the History of OS Innovation

Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism, Etc.: Operating Systems and Recent History Dan Gillmor has a nice little history lesson reminder of where exactly we have been and where we might expect to go with regards to computer operating systems in the future. It’s a well written article and a pretty insightful comparison between Apple and Microsoft put in good historical context.

My migration from a Mac to a PC took place in 1992 and was in large part due to the fact that I graduated from college in 1990 and after two years of trying to struggle along with a Mac at home and a PC at work I decided that it made sense to combine the two in order to build my power user skills. There was no way that I was going to get my employer, a major publicly traded bank, to consider “thinking different.”

Subsequently Microsoft has increasingly used toe holds to lock me down at every turn, my Media Center PC, my Audiovox Windows based phone, all of the software that I’ve invested in, my laptop, etc. Forget even about the learning curve or a natural inclination, at this point there is no going back pending some astronomical technological advantage on the part of Apple. And we haven’t even counted the three new Xboxes that they are about to sell me once I find out that they will work as HDTV extender boxes.

On the other hand, I’m not particularly bitter about locked down with Microsoft because as Dan indicates in his column, Microsoft is not sitting on it’s laurels but is rather continuing to innovate. In fact they have to innovate. And it’s this innovation that excites me and although I may have to wait until next year to get some of the tigerish features out today, I’ll still be getting them soon with Longhorn.

And in my opinion Microsoft is still doing significantly more with the Media Center PC concept than anything else that Apple is doing for home digital entertainment.

Dan clearly articulates some of his own thoughts on the major competitive weaknesses for both Apple and Microsoft:

“One of the Mac’s biggest advantages in the new century has been the almost total absence of viruses and spyware on the platform in an era when the plague of malware has become a clear danger. Windows users surely wish they were so lucky. At the same time, Mac users, especially in corporate settings, often find themselves marginalised by software vendors and support personnel.”

Or put another way, as Bill Gates might say, “You can always tell whether you’re on a Mac or on a PC,” said Gates, his voice taking a mischievous tone. “Just stick your applications in there and see whether they’ll run.”

Another area that Gillmor mentions is web services and I’m sure that the folks in Redmond are watching this one like a hawk (no pun intended). “Another shift may be more important: the move to the web. To the extent that the web is a computing platform in its own right, the system running the individual device loses importance. We are a considerable distance from total independence of this kind, but the trend is real.”

With Google opening up a recruiting campus mere miles from Microsoft this pressure is indeed on and real.

In the end, Gillmor is optimistic on the outlook for operating systems as am I.

“With Tiger, Apple is plainly in the lead today. The built-in search function is getting rave reviews, among other performance boosts that keep the Mac ahead on ease of use. Mac loyalists should not get smug. Microsoft works hardest when it is lagging the competition.

For computer users, the back and forth is good news. Personal computers are cheaper than ever, but they remain too unreliable and difficult to use. Only competition – from commercial and non-commercial sources alike – can make a difference. It is doing so.”

Dan is right, and I’m excited about things coming around the bend from both Apple and Microsoft. They are good for each other and good for consumers — as is that other pesky little guy, Linux.