(I'm writing a periodic column for the Financial Times. Here's the one that appeared today.)
Early last week, Bill Gates demonstrated Microsoft’s next Windows desktop computer operating system at a conference for manufacturers of computer hardware. Later in the week Apple started selling its latest version of the Macintosh operating system, known as Mac OS X Tiger.
Although the Microsoft product is a long way from hitting the retail marketplace, Gates’s talk garnered lots of coverage in the trade and popular media. The timing, coming next to the Apple launch, was part of the reason; the media can not resist the Microsoft versus Apple story. But the Tiger release and Microsoft hypefest were only the latest engagements in a never-ending campaign for the hearts, minds and wallets of computer users. Their interests, not corporate power games, are why this matters.
Microsoft, for a variety of reasons, now holds a nearly unassailable monopoly on the desktop. Thankfully for the users of technology, however, innovation keeps coming from a variety of quarters.
How different, and how similar, the landscape looked a decade ago. While history rarely repeats itself in the fast-moving and frequently surprising technology sphere, it’s always worth looking back for perspective.
I well recall the avalanche of hyperbole from Microsoft and a then-adoring media when Windows 95 hit the market. I also remember how a Macintosh enthusiast came up with a lapel button at the time. It read: “Windows ‘95 = Macintosh ‘89”.
The notion had a strong element of truth. After all, in 1995, Windows was only belatedly catching up with the ease-of-use advances that had long been integral to the Mac operating system.
But the witty lapel button raised another question: If Windows 95 was just Mac 89, what had Apple done in the meantime? It was almost as fair to say that Mac 95 equalled Mac 89. Although the Mac hardware had advanced (as hardware does independently of software in any event), the company had not exactly maintained its innovative pace of software progress.
In fact, the most serious operating system competition for Microsoft in 1995 came from IBM’s OS/2, which was clearly superior to Windows 95 in many ways. IBM’s biggest problem was itself, as it was betrayed by an astonishing inability to sell a better product either to computer makers - who, to be fair, were being bludgeoned by the predatory Microsoft - or to independent software developers, without the support of whom no operating system can be successful in today’s world.
OS/2 faded. And as the 1990s progressed, Windows moved ahead of the pack in key ways. Not until Apple released OS X did it catch up architecturally with newer versions of Windows, even though in most ways the Mac has always been friendlier for the user.
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.
Linux? It’s coming along at a surprisingly fast pace. The open source software community has ardently improved the free operating systems to the point that it’s acceptable on the desktop for at least some uses. It’s not yet up to the proprietary competition for use by average folks, especially home users who want to do anything beyond basic computing applications.
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.
It is far too early to know precisely what features Microsoft will include into the next version of Windows, supposedly to be sold next year. The company has already indicated it won’t keep some of its most tantalising promises.
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.