Off Topic => Engineering => Topic started by: Nemesis on December 13, 2008, 08:09:49 pm

Title: A little history and some speculation on what it means for the future.
Post by: Nemesis on December 13, 2008, 08:09:49 pm
A little history and some speculation on what it means for the future.


In the earlier thread "No software is free? (http://www.dynaverse.net/forum/index.php/topic,163384308.0.html)" the various discussions made me think a little about history in the microcomputer field and the effects of being "open" vs "closed" on that history.  I almost made a posting about it in that thread but decided to create one with its own thread rather than derail that discussion.

So here it is.

Part I - Hardware

The early days were quite chaotic and mostly composed of kit built computers though there were some that came preassembled.  Many of those early companies copied freely from one another and they rose and fell frequently as "newest and greatest" machines came out every few months or even faster.  This began to change with release of the Apple II and ultimately the Apple II was the dominant machine. 

The Apple ii maintained its dominance in spite of challengers like the Commodore Pet and others until IBM entered the market with the IBM PC and Apple moved on to the Macintosh.  The PC and the Apple II shared openness as a design principal.  Both Apple and IBM counted on other companies to make add on devices and software in a big way for their success so the machines had expansion slots and ports as standard features and little was done to tie you to the company for anything beyond the basic machine.  Many companies made their fortunes making add on devices for these two machine.

Then Apple changed when they released the Macintosh.  Ironically they became very much more like the IBM of the mainframe world, proprietary and locking others out of things to a great degree.  Just at the time they had their toughest competition Apple closed up their hardware and delivered a machine with no expansion slots and a sealed case.  IBM with its open machine became the dominant force in the microcomputer industry. 

Some think that IBM won just because of their being IBM.  Myself I think that Apples fall was hastened and increased by the reversal of the behaviours of the two companies and that IBMs later fall reflects that.

As the IBM PC achieved dominance other companies cloned it, notably Compaq.  Compaq unlike some of the clones initially didn't attack IBM head on but created a "portable" version unlike anything IBM made.  Later when IBM refused to upgrade to the 386 Compaq took the lead and by doing so set the new standard and in many ways became the market leader, not in volume but in perception. 

As time passed Compaq working with Intel and Microsoft collectively took the leadership role purposefully creating hardware standards for others to follow. Ultimately the "alliance" became Wintel, just Microsoft and Intel.

IBM didn't take this well and like Apple before them closed up their system.  They released the MCA machines (microchannel architecture) which was a thoroughly closed design.  Add ons could be made but needed cooperation from IBM to do so.  If IBM didn't choose to cooperate  you would have problems.  The competition for leadership and market control between IBM on the one side and triumvirate was lost by IBM as witness their ultimately getting out of making PCs entirely.  The systems promoted by the Compaq and Wintel were open, MCA was closed, open won again.

With the situation as it is now the open architectures are the only ones left on the desktop and servers, only laptops and palmtops are closed up and that is mainly due to the small size leaving little room for expansion.  With smaller connectors that may yet change.

Part II - Software

In many ways software parallels the open and closed nature of the hardware.  Early on the OS was not integrated with utilities and many 3rd parties made their fortunes making such software.  Norton Commander for example was so well loved as a DOS add on that even now a clone of it lives on in Linux as Midnight Commander on the command line.

So long as MS-DOS was uncontested this openness in the software field was maintained.  Then along came DR-DOS to compete with MS-DOS and Microsoft was competing for the Desktop environment with DR-GEM.  Microsoft began to close things down. 

Microsoft and IBM together began working on a successor to DOS and jointly started the creation of OS/2.  They fell out over the design and IBM went it alone.  The basic disagreement was that IBM wanted to merge it into their existing software line and give it features that would make it easier to port software down to OS/2 from their minicomputers or up from the PC to the minicomputers.  This however broke backwards compatibility with DOS and more importantly Windows 3.1 which had finally began to achieve the popularity that Microsoft was striving for.  So they went their separate ways, IBM with their closed up OS/2 that they didn't support on machines they didn't make and Microsoft with MS-DOS/Windows.  Ultimately Microsoft created Windows NT with many of the features of OS/2 but greater backwards compatibility to DOS/Windows.

Unlike IBM before them they had a major advantage in that they already were a defacto monopoly when the danger of competition arrived.  They had from the beginning sold MS-DOS to major PC manufacturers on the basis that they were paid per machine sold not per copy of MS-DOS sold.  That blocked the competion from competing on price from any major manufacturers.  But other wise things were still open.  Utilities such as replacement file managers for Windows were quite common.

Then along came Netscape and bombastic claims from their managers to the effect that the browser could replace the operating system and the creation of Internet Explorer.  Microsoft began to close things down in a big way.  Initially by their contracts they controlled what software could be preinstalled and blocked competitors from being installed on the machine in place of IE.  This resulted in two things, first the DOJ vs Microsoft antitrust suit (lost by Microsoft) and 2nd Microsoft began integrating things more tightly than ever before.

As a result of the court cases Microsoft was restricted how they could "bundle" software which was how they had worked to exclude competitors.  To bypass the court restrictions they began to "integrate" things instead.  Utility after utility was integrated in.  The basic openness of DOS was lost as successive versions of Windows came out.  Win95 integrated DOS/Windows as one system effectively killing DR-DOS and DR-GEM.  Win98 integrated IE into the mix.  Its carried on since with Mediaplayer and messenger among others. 

With each step of integration the ability of the end user to replace components was reduced and the system was closed more and more.

The next step in closing things up was DRM.  Early elements were incorporated in Win2k, for example Win2K based DRM attempted to block my copying a DVD (illegal in the U.S. but legal here in Canada).  WinXP with its activation carried on the trend.  Win Vista has carried on with more draconian DRM still.

Part III - Speculation on what it means for the future.

In the microcomputer hardware field each time a company closed things up they began to lose market share and finally lost their dominance.  So the question is will software do the same?

So are there signs of Microsoft beginning to lose their dominance?  I say yes and will give examples to illustrate my reasons.

1/ Redhat and Mandriva both sell Linux distributions and are in the black.  Redhat is primarily server oriented and Mandrive end user.  Other Linux distributions exist such as Novell (whether their Linux division is profitable or not I don't know) and Ubuntu along with non commercial versions such as Linux Mint (which I use).

2/ Vistas slow uptake.  After 2 years Vista should have 30% or more of market share based just on the replacement rate.  Depending on who you listen to its between 12% and 18%.  For a new version of Windows that is a low up take.

3/ The continued existence of WinXP.  Time after time Microsoft has had to extend the lifeline of XP.  For the first time they have not been able to just end a version at their discretion. 

4/ Netbooks.  Netbooks are a new market segment, one that Vista won't work on until more powerful systems arrive.  This has (among other things) forced the continued existence of XP. Even with XP still alive Linux ships on 30% - 40% of all Netbooks.  This has the bad (from the Microsoft viewpoint) affect of showing those satisfied Linux Netbook users that they can get along without Windows and some may be tempted to abandon Windows on the desktop.

5/ Rising market share of OSX and Linux (http://www.w3counter.com/globalstats.php). Combined with the drop of Windows to just below 90% for the first time in years.  Add to that the rise of alternative web browsers (mainly Firefox) lowering IE to below 70% (maybe even below (60%).

6/ ODF - Open Document Format.  Over the last few years there has been an increasing push towards document formats that are not locked to one proprietary program.  Pushing hard enough that Microsoft has begun to push back.  Microsoft has been pushing MS-OOXML as a standard and it is (barring successful appeals) now an ISO standard like ODF.  No one (including Microsoft) supports OOXML yet whereas several support ODF. 

My conclusion is that Microsofts closing things in is driving people to try the competition just as Apple and IBMs attempt to close in the hardware did the same before. Open will defeat closed as people don't like to give up their freedom of choice.