The History of OS Migration

“Operating system vendors face this problem once or twice a decade: They need to migrate their user base from their old operating system to their very different new one, or they need to switch from one CPU architecture to another one, and they want to enable users to run old applications unmodified, and help developers port their applications to the new OS. Let us look at how this has been done in the last 3 decades, looking at DOS/Windows, Macintosh, Amiga and Palm.”

Wow, hats off to Michael Steil of for this thorough and informative article. I want this to be on Page 1 here on OSnews, but that means having to write something about it; and what is there to write that hasn’t already been covered in the article?

I personally have gone through a number of OS transitions, and whilst the article does cover each vendor’s personal migration path up the version numbers, we should consider another migration path that many of us do–switching from one vendor’s OS to another!

One can argue that there is no direct [vendor-supplied] migration path for this, because it’s different vendors with mostly proprietary software and file formats. Applications on the one OS are not available on the other.

In fact—if anything—vendors have made it easier to migrate version numbers, CPU architectures and bitness than to migrate to a new vendor entirely, when theoretically, the easiest movement should be sideways–just taking your data to another OS that provides transparent mechanisms for manipulating that same data.

Apple provides a “Move2Mac” product to transfer your Windows files to a Mac, and now can even do so in-store as a customer service. Microsoft don’t provide

Asa Dotzler, Mozilla engineer had this to say (in 2005!) about the issue of migrating to Linux:

The first issue, migration, is pretty serious. For “Regular People” to adopt Linux (which usually means leaving Windows) Linux is going to need a serious migration plan. It will need to install on machines next to Window, leaving that completely intact and easy to return to, and carry over all or nearly all of the user’s data and settings. Regular People may be willing to take a look at Linux, but as long as all of their data and settings still lives in Windows, they’re not going to stay very long — no matter how appealing it might be. We learned this lesson in the Mozilla world. It wasn’t until we implemented a very capable migration system in Firefox, which carried over the user’s IE favorites, cookies, history, passwords, etc. that Regular People started moving over in serious numbers — and staying (and bringing others over.) Linux needs to do the same.

It’s clearly a much bigger task for an entire OS and all of its major applications to accomplish, but it simply has to be done. When Regular People fire up the Linux desktop for the first time, the browser, office suite, email client, IM client, file manager, etc, each need to carry over as much as possible of the Windows application settings and all or very nearly all of the user data. Without this, the hill is just too steep to climb and Regular People will not make the climb. – source

This issue still stands. Vendors have become ever better at migrating users over to their own new products, bridging incredible gaps like entire architecture incompatibility, but in order to make gains in the coming future vendors are going to have to make it just as easy to switch from another OS, and that means migrating the incredibly difficult “data-gap”.

I downloaded Safari 4. I was willing to give it a month to try out the new interface and see if it stacked up. It had no option to import my Firefox bookmarks. I don’t use Safari at all anymore.

I try every version of Ubuntu that’s released on my MacBookPro and since Intrepid everything has worked out of the box. But it’s nothing more than a toy without my data. Could I migrate that data myself? Yes. Should I have to? No. If all my data were already there, in the right places — My Firefox profile in place, Pidgin instead of Adium and so on — then I could start working right away and the chances of me sticking with Linux would be some 100x greater.

As it stands it’s a freekin’ chore and it’s not going to happen.

So whilst Michael Steil has documented how vendors have overcome massive hurdles to keep their users on their OS, can Linux overcome the hurdle to get users to migrate to theirs? It’s at least 4 years late already in my book.


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