Home' Technology Review : September October 2009 Contents FEATURE STORY
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW SEPTEMBER/ OCTOBER
stems from the global economic slowdown. But broad shifts in
information technology are also reducing the importance of the
personal computer and its central piece of software, the OS. In
many parts of the world, including the two most populous coun-
tries, China and India, mobile phones are increasingly the most
common means of reaching the Web. And in the rich world, net-
books, which are ideal for Web surfing, e-mailing, and Twittering,
account for one in every 10 computers sold.
Another powerful trend that undercuts Microsoft is toward
programs that look and function the same way in any operating
system. "Over the past five years there's been a steady move away
from Windows-specific to applications being OS-neutral," says
Michael Silver, a software analyst at the research firm Gartner.
One example would be Adobe Flash. Such popular social appli-
cations as Facebook and Twitter are also indi erent to operating
systems, o ering users much the same experience no matter what
personal computer or handheld device they use. Since so many
people live in their social-media sites, the look and feel of these
sites has become at least as important as the user interface of the
OS. The e ect is to shrink the role of the OS, from conductor of the
orchestra to merely one of its soloists. "The traditional operating
system is becoming less and less important," says Paul Maritz, chief
executive of VMware, who was once the Microsoft executive in
charge of the operating system. By and large, he has noted, "people
are no longer writing traditional Windows applications."
Microsoft's troubles make the company's OS doubly vulner-
able. Vista, its current version, has been roundly criticized, and it
has never caught on as widely as the company anticipated; many
Microsoft customers continue to use the previous version of Win-
dows, XP. A new version being released this fall, Windows 7, prom-
ises to remedy the worst problems of Vista. But even 7 may not
address a set of technical issues that both galvanize Microsoft's
critics and stoke the appetites of Brin and Page to create a more
pleasing alternative. In their view, the Microsoft OS takes too long
to boot up, and it slows down even the newest hardware. It is too
prone to viral attacks and too complicated.
Exactly how Google plans to solve these problems is still some-
thing of a mystery. Technical details aren't available. Google has
said so little about the innards of its forthcoming OS that it quali-
fies as "a textbook example of vaporware," wrote John Gruber on
his blog Daring Fireball. Information is scarce about even such
basic things as whether it will have a new user interface or rely
on an existing open-source one, and whether it will support the
driver that make printers and other peripherals routinely work
with Windows PCs.
The mere announcement of Chrome already threatens Micro-
soft, however. The imminence of Google's entry into the market---
following the delivery of its Android OS for mobile phones---gives
Microsoft's corporate customers a reason to ask for lower prices.
After all, Google's OS will be free, and the buyers of Windows are
chiefly PC makers, whose profit margins are already ultra-slim.
"It's all upside for Google and no downside," says Mitchell Kapor,
a software investor and the founder of Lotus, a pioneer supplier of
PC applications that was bloodied by Microsoft in the 1990s.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book on the making of Windows NT---
still the foundation of Microsoft's OS family. At the time, I wrongly
concluded that developing the dominant operating system was
proof of technological power, akin to building the greatest fleet
of battleships in the early 20th century, or the pyramids long ago.
Windows NT required hundreds of engineers, tens of millions of
development dollars, and a huge marketing e ort. By the mid-
1990s, Microsoft was emphasizing features over function, com-
plexity over simplicity.
In doing so, Microsoft and its cofounder, Bill Gates, seemed to
be fulfilling the company's historical destiny. The operating sys-
tem as a technological showpiece goes back to OS/360, a program
designed by IBM that was immortalized in The Mythical Man-
Month, a book by the engineer Frederick Brooks. The historian
Thomas Haigh explains, "That was a huge scaling up of ambition
of what the OS was for."
IBM's 360 mainframe was the first computer to gain widespread
acceptance in business, and the popularity of the machine, first
sold in 1965, depended as much on its software as its hardware.
When IBM used Microsoft's DOS as the operating system for its
first PC, introduced in 1981, it was the first time Big Blue had gone
outside its own walls for a central piece of code. Soon, technologists
(including, belatedly, IBM) realized that control of the OS had given
Microsoft control of the PC. IBM tried and failed to regain that
control with a program called OS/2. But Microsoft triumphed with
Windows in the 1990s---and became the most profitable company
on earth, turning Gates into the world's richest person. Thus, the
OS came to be viewed as the ultimate technological product, a plat-
form seemingly protean enough to incorporate and control every
future software innovation and at the same time robust enough to
drag outdated PC machines and programs into the present.
It couldn't last. The main reason why control of the OS no lon-
ger guarantees technological power, of course, is the ascent of
the Internet. Gates made few references to the Internet in the
first edition of his book The Road Ahead, published in November
1995. Neither Windows NT nor its mass-market incarnation, Win-
dows 95, was intimately connected to the Web. With the spread of
Netscape's browser, though, Gates began to realize that the indi-
vidual PC and its operating system would have to coöperate with
the public information network. By bringing a browser into the
OS and thus giving it away, Microsoft recovered its momentum
(and killed o a new generation of competitors). Then, preoccu-
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