The death of real operating systems, continued (and why I was wrong about Microsoft Surface)
Let’s start with the Jim Bakker “I was wrong” part first.
Last week, when rumors started flying that Microsoft was planning to release a tablet that it manufactured itself, I ventured the opinion that they would do no such thing. Why not? Because Microsoft, unlike Apple, depends upon relations with hardware suppliers. I figured that Microsoft would concentrate on getting the operating system right, and then would help Hewlett Packard, Dell, Asus, and the other hardware manufacturers to come up with the best tablets out there.
Then, on Monday afternoon (California time), Steve Ballmer began his presentation. I was monitoring it (via Ars Technica and Mashable), and once Ballmer started talking about Microsoft’s thirty years of hardware experience, I knew that my prediction was 100% incorrect.
I still have to see how the computer hardware manufacturers reacted to Microsoft’s announcement, but for now I want to concentrate on one aspect of the announcement – one that continues the long erosion of personal power in personal computing.
I am fond of saying that the 1970s was the high point of personal freedom. In a similar vein, the early 1980s was the high point of computing freedom. By the early 1980s, truly personal computers were available in a variety of configurations, from a variety of manufacturers. And, more importantly, there was a vast array of software available for these computers, with minimal barriers to entry. If you wanted to write your own CP/M or Apple or DOS application, you could just go out and write it.
The first restrictions on this appeared in 1984 (heh), when the company then known as Apple Computer released the Macintosh. Did anyone note Steve Ballmer’s statement yesterday about how hardware and software work well when designed together? Ballmer was not the first Steve to make such a statement. For most of Macintosh’s history, the operating system and the hardware were only available from Apple Computer/Apple. Meanwhile, Apple also tried to control the applications that appeared on the platform. I worked for a certified Macintosh developer in those days, and certified developers had to conform to Apple’s program design standards.
But there was another control on Macintosh developers in those days – the Macintosh user base. Macintosh programs did not have to be sold via a “Mac store” in the 1980s – any of those CP/M or DOS developers could easily port their software over to the Mac. And they could do it without changing it whatsoever. But if they did so, they would have to endure the wrath of those who bled six colors. “This is just a DOS application!” they would sneer.
Unfortunately, attempts to control the software you could run on your own computer did not end there. Eventually Apple and others (Google, Microsoft, etc.) did come up with their own stores for particular platforms and applications. In some cases, the only way that you could get software for your hardware platform (e.g. mobile phone) was through the official store of the software provider. The term “jailbreak” is commonly used to the act of freeing your hardware platform to get software from anyone – something that we all took for granted in the days of the DOS prompt.
Microsoft is now continuing this trend, if you look at the footnotes on Surface’s About page.
1 Works exclusively with apps from the Windows Store.
You see, while Microsoft Surface has a keyboard and therefore sort of looks like a netbook, it will actually run the Windows RT operating system. While CNET professes not to know what “RT” stands for, “reduced technology” is my guess.
Will a day arrive when fully functioning operating systems are no longer available? After all, the operating system vendors seem to prefer the locked-down OS implementations, and enterprises clearly prefer the locked-down OS implementations. Will consumers have a say in the matter?