For six decades we have lived through the Operating System (OS) wars. While it is clear that the OS does impact device functionality, the key to the wars has been the software and hardware ecosystems that grew up around their walled gardens. To operate in one ecosystem meant that you were excluded from the others. Is that still the case? The introduction of cross OS applications and programming tools driven by the rapid shift to mobile computing is finally breaking down ecosystem walls and making the OS matter less.
Age of OS Empires
You can go back to the classical period of operating systems and think of the age of empires. In this era, IBM was Rome. Burroughs, GE and others also provided OSes for their hardware, but IBM’s mainframes were the standard of business computing when computing was exclusively the domain of enterprises. If you wanted to participate in the technology ecosystem during this era, compatibility with IBM and the ability to interoperate with its software was essential. In most instances, compatibility meant becoming a Roman and coding your own modifications to System/360 or its predecessors.
Mini-computer Barbarians Shake up the OS World
Like Rome, the IBM mainframe empire became insular, satisfied with its dominant market share and the total control it exerted over the technology ecosystem. Innovation and the manifest destiny of Moore’s law led to fissures in the great empire with the introduction of the mini-computer. Innovators such as Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) and the spread of Unix beyond Universities created a new class of non-IBM computers for enterprises. While the mini-computer took direct aim at the high cost and restrictions of the IBM mainframes it ushered in the eventual demise of the IBM OS monopoly and the fragmentation of the technology landscape.
OS World War I: personal computing
The OS war for personal computing was the original people’s war that spilled over into the enterprise. Commodore, Atari, Apple and countless others tried to establish beachheads. It was Microsoft’s deal to harvest the last remnants of the IBM distribution system that won the war for its Windows OS. Microsoft was victorious in the consumer market achieving OS market share exceeding 85% of desktops. Total domination.
OS World War II: servers
As servers were becoming more important, it led to another struggle for control. Unix had been the early market share leader in server operating systems, but the introduction of Microsoft NT and later XP started Microsoft’s long march to the top. It successfully leveraged control of the desktop into control of the enterprise server. As of 2011, Microsoft controlled over 45% of the market compared to less than a quarter for Unix. The big news on the server front is the rapid growth of Linux since 2008 to over 18% share and eroding the market for both Microsoft and Unix in the process. Why this matters to the mobility world is simple. Mobility is driving users to leverage more server-based cloud computing.
The New OS World Order: iOS and Android
The move to mobile is but latest skirmish in the OS wars. Apple with its iOS has attempted to bring back the Age of Empire and replicate its own early forays into personal computing by trying to control the entire mobile hardware and software stack. The elegance of its machines and software combined with a tremendous software partner ecosystem has made it the leading player in mobile OS. However, we have seen that the walls aren’t nearly as high as they were in the mainframe and personal computer eras. Whereas the rise of System/360 and later Windows served to eliminate nearly all competitors and marginalize the others, Google’s Android OS has risen despite Apple’s early lead in users, applications and technology.
What has allowed Android to make such rapid progress is the community of nations approach combined with the nearly ubiquitous connectivity and interoperability tools. Android trails the robustness of the Apple iOS ecosystem significantly. While there may be more Android devices today, there are fewer Apps and much greater fragmentation of the partner and user base.
However, many of the vendors serving the iOS ecosystem are also supporting the Android ecosystem paving the way for interoperability that is a new phenomenon in the mobile OS wars. This scenario is dismantling the bricks in Apple’s walled empire as quickly as they were erected. And while Android is not today an existential threat to Apple the way the PC was to IBM dominance of enterprise computing, it appears no company can dominate the mobile platform the way leading OSes could in the past.
Why does the OS matter less today? Cloud.
Server based computing is the first key shift impacting OS vendor power. More and more computing is driven to common servers and off of distributed devices. Given the wide variety of devices, server-based computing demands cross-platform performance to achieve maximum scale and service levels. When you go to Google Apps or Salesforce.com on your PC, is the functionality materially different than on your Mac or even your mobile devices? The answer is generally no beyond the quirks of screen size and multi-touch interfaces. Cloud technologies are leveling the playing field.
John Kelvie, one of our EdgeLens gurus, makes this observation,
With the cloud and platform-as-a-service offerings, OS doesn’t matter. I get a VM or an Application Server, and what it actually runs on does not matter. This is the way many cloud offerings operate; Google, parts of Amazon such as Elastic Beanstalk, and Heroku. And these are just the prominent ones. There are lots of neat offerings that completely abstract away the OS.
One more reason – Microsoft’s failure on mobile
Additionally, the software vendors have incentive to support interoperability across devices. When there was one computing device per person, you could standardize on a single platform. Now that users typically carry two or three computing devices (adding smartphones and tablets to the portfolio), cross platform – and therefore cross operating system – computing has become essential. Otherwise vendors can inadvertently lose a customer who is dissatisfied that she can’t utilize the tool or data on the most convenient device available. The alternative is islands of computing where your data is locked in devices and users are frustrated. If Microsoft had been more successful in competing with iOS on the smartphone and tablet, we might not be having this discussion today. But it did not and now we have computing fragmentation unlike previous eras.
1 User, 3 Operating Systems
- On the laptop level I am using a Microsoft Windows based PC from Dell
- For a tablet, I am using the iPad
- My mobile device is a Motorola Droid Razr Maxx
For each of these devices I do have some application islands, but I am also utilizing several common applications across each to maximize the seamless experience. Some examples include:
- Google: Gmail, Calendar, Apps, Chrome
I will post from time to time over the next three months highlighting the successes and failures of this multi-OS experiment. The very fact that I can even attempt this is validation that OS dominance is a fading paradigm. However, I suspect there are still many benefits of commonality across the OS stack and I hope to unearth some insight there as well.
Do you use a common OS stack across your devices or are you operating in a multi-OS world today as well? What has been your experience? Comment below and join the discussion.