November 18, 2003

What belongs in an operating system?

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

This question is behind most of Microsoft's recent antitrust problems. Microsoft's defenders often point out that Linux distributions include not just Web browsers and multimedia software, but office suites, graphics packages, and many other programs that are not "part of the operating system." This is true, but in the Linux distribution you can easily replace one browser with another, and you are free to use whatever multimedia playback program you like. And now, although it doesn't seem like a related topic, let's talk about modems and network cards for a moment.I have several PCMCIA modems around, along with a PCMCIA network card or two, but they're packed away in an "old stuff" box in my office closet. My current laptop has both a modem and a network interface built in, so I no longer need those old cards.

Based on industry trends, the next new laptop I get, three or four years from now, will probably have built-in wireless. When I get it, my PCMCIA wireless network cards will join their cousins in the "old stuff" box.

Poof! An entire product category -- the PCMCIA laptop add-on card, is becoming obsolete before your very eyes because its functions are becoming part of the laptop itself.

This is an inevitable part of the better-faster-cheaper technology product development cycle, and as a technology user I am very happy about it, although I'll admit I would probably not be happy about it if I was a PCMCIA network card marketing person wondering when the Layoff Finger was going to point in my direction.

What do we want a computer to do?

Ideally, I want a computer that comes with a stable set of software already installed that does what I need to do. My needs are not complex. I am a heavy Web browser and email user. I write and edit text and save it as HTML, ASCII, and in several other formats depending on where and how it is going to be published, and I like to be able to listen to music and look at a video now and then. I do a bit of unsophisticated graphics work and Web design once in a while, and I've been known to play a few simple computer games, notably solitaire, for a few moments if whatever I'm trying to write at the moment isn't coming together correctly and I need to clear my head but don't feel like walking around the block (which is my usual way of dealing with minor work frustrations when the weather is nice).

Naturally, I have specific programs I'm used to using, and I want my perfect computer to come with them preinstalled or at least have the ability to install them quickly and easily with no more work than entering a root password and clicking an "install this software" button.

Unfortunately -- from the computer or operating system vendor's viewpoint -- your software needs are probably not the same as mine. You may need software development tools I'd never use, and our taste in games is almost certainly going to be different. So we end up with huge software choices; for Windows this results in long shelves in computer stores covered with pay-for boxed programs; for Linux it results in distros like SUSE that fill multiple CDs of DVDs, and Web sites that index thousands of available programs.

Oh -- there's another software feature I just realized I need, and that you probably need too: the ability to uninstall programs completely and easily. Some software we try just doesn't work out, and there are other programs we may only need once or for a short time.

Does the operating system matter?

Aside from security problems, cost, and a lack of ability to uninstall all programs cleanly, Windows XP can handle most of my necessary computer tasks nearly as well as Linux. My two most-used "big" programs -- Mozilla and OpenOffice -- run on either platform. There are Windows equivalents to many of my favorite "small" Linux programs that aren't available for Windows, too. And for gamers, I believe that most or all of the titles available on Linux through Transgaming and other Linux game companies also run on Windows.

You've doubtless heard, "People buy applications, not computers." This is true. I would not buy a DooperDelux SooperMicroPuter with a 128 bit TriAthlon microprocessor, 20 GB of RAM, and 100 blue LEDs on the front panel, even on sale for $250, if it couldn't run either the programs I'm used to or ones similar enough to them that it wouldn't take me long to learn how to use the Dooper Sooper equivalents.

I'm reasonably satisfied with Linux at this point -- and when I say "Linux" I really mean, "Linux and GNU utilities and a KDE desktop and a lot of other software, all cleverly packaged as a single unit." I tried Windows XP not long ago and was no happier with it than Windows-lovers who try to switch to Linux without having a really good reason for the change.

Most of what made me unhappy with Windows, aside from the fact that it was different from what I've become used to with Linux, was related to specific applications. If all applications -- or at least the ones I need -- were identical across the two operating systems, and I knew a few more Windows "tricks" that would allow me to set up the basic desktop to conform to the layout I have become accustomed to in Linux, it wouldn't really matter to me which operating system my computer ran from a usability standpoint.

Of course, software freedom, security, and cost differences would mean that Linux would still be my operating system of choice if Windows and Linux were identical in most behaviors and ran exactly the same software.

But eliminate these differences, and would it really matter which operating system I ran?

Operating system convergence

Microsoft is putting a great deal of time, energy, and money into making Windows more secure. At the same time, the number of Linux applications for non-technical users is growing so rapidly that it may be only a few years before there are just as many user-level applications for Linux as there are for Windows today.

The cost difference between the two is not great; Windows XP costs OEMs between $50 and $100, which may be big money in Thailand but isn't a whole lot in North America or Europe. There is already some open source software available for Windows, with more being written or ported every year.

And, to top all this off, Mac OS X ports of Linux and *BSD programs are becoming common.

We are moving toward a world where, for most people, operating system choice will be a matter of individual (or corporate) preference, not a "live or die by it" choice. And even Microsoft now seems to realize (most of the time) that interoperability is important, so the impetus to run homogenous networks is becoming weaker every year.

Naturally, all this scares Microsoft. Their corporate culture has trouble understanding why anyone would choose non-Microsoft software over theirs. And many Windows users seem to have trouble understanding why anyone would possibly prefer anything else. This doesn't matter, as long as enough people use Linux (or other non-Windows operating systems) to keep Windows from being totally dominant.

The fight for computer freedom today isn't really about the underlying operating system. That is on its way to becoming a free or very low cost commodity.

The real battle -- and I am far from the first person to say this -- is over file formats.

When file formats are open, you have a choice of operating systems and applications software. When you use a proprietary format, you are stuck with whatever limitations its owner wants to put on it -- which means that they, not you, have true ownership of your data. And that proprietary data format owner gets to choose which operating system and applications software you get to use, which means that they, not you, control your computer choices.

Advocating OpenOffice (or StarOffice), Mozilla and other "alternative" browsers, and non-WMP media players for Windows may be more important than trying to get Windows users to switch to Linux.

As you're probably aware, the European Union and Microsoft are snarling at each other over Windows Media Player (and, by extension, its .wmp file format), and whether Microsoft is using its operating system monopoly to unfairly promote WMP.

If Microsoft wins, the many Windows users who don't know any better than to stick with default settings may never even know alternatives to the .wmp format exist, just as many Microsoft Office and Microsoft Word users don't seem to know they can save files in anything other than .doc format.

Don't be shocked if -- assuming Microsoft either wins the EU case or gets a barely-stinging hand-slap like it did as a result of its U.S. antitrust trial -- we see Word and Excel and other Microsoft products (and their proprietary data formats) gradually become "part of the operating system."

The funny thing is, most computer buyers probably won't even notice, and the few who do might think this is a positive move by Microsoft. Buying a machine that already has everything they need to function preinstalled, ready to run, is a lot easier than hunting around the 'net for downloads or buying and installing a lot of third-party software.

Ah, well. Perhaps once day the U.S. will get the same choice people in advanced countries like India and Thailand already have: to buy major-brand, heavily-promoted computers loaded with Windows and a basic office package -- or the same hardware loaded with Linux and more software for a lower price, and since the Linux computer has all the functionality 90% of the population needs, at least 1/3 of all computer buyers pick it on the basis of price, and decide they like Linux more than Windows -- just like a lot of people in Thailand. And if even a substantial minority of computer users choose something other than Windows, Microsoft's dreams of dominance through proprietary file formats *poof* go up in smoke, no matter how much software they decide is "part of the operating system."

It's a pleasant dream, anyway.


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