Opinion: Thanks, Microsoft

Though Microsoft is the behemoth that everyone loves to hate, the computing world actually owes a lot to Bill Gates and co. And though it’s possible that someone else would have blazed the trail to “a PC on every desktop,” in our world, it was Microsoft that did it. Update: Now with page breaks! (My fault — David)
Computers have been around for decades now, even centuries, if you include the Abacus, which I imagine, although debatable, could be considered the original computer. The ENIAC was the first electronic computer. Built in the 1940’s, the machine itself was massive and powered by vacuum tubes. It did little more than the Abacus in a sense that it was designed for numerical calculations. At the time it was a great achievement. No one but top military personnel and scientists had access to it. By today’s standards it would be nothing more than a simple calculator. By comparison, today any child can go to the public library and have access to a computer that is thousands of times more powerful.

Unless you have been living behind closed doors and shuttered windows you’ve no doubt seen the articles and debates about the competition between GNU/Linux and the Microsoft Windows Operating System. Which system is better? Both camps claim to have the better OS. This may actually be the truth of the whole matter. No single Operating system is going to be the best fit for all tasks.

I personally am not a Microsoft advocate. I urge people on a daily basis to use alternative Open Source software when I see an opportunity, such as OpenOffice and Firefox. Both of these programs are available on the Windows platform as well as various others. It’s no big deal to install and use Firefox, but trying to get people to abandon their OS in favor of a system they may never have heard of could be like a mission out of a James Bond movie, with more drama than a daytime soap opera. Certain issues that surround Free and Open Source Software must still be evaluated, such as patents and Intellectual Property. These issues cannot be ignored and must be resolved.

However, in all fairness, and to keep history straight, one must acknowledge Microsoft’s contribution to the computing industry. Bill Gates had a goal in mind. That goal was to put a Windows based computer on every desktop. He has, for the most part, succeed in his endeavor. At last count, MS Windows, in some form or another, accounted for more than 90% of the desktop market. This figure is slowly starting to decline as the use and acceptance of the Open Source Operating System GNU/Linux Rises. Microsoft is primarily responsible for the proliferation of a ‘point and click’ computing system built on relatively inexpensive hardware.

It’s not necessarily because Microsoft had a superior product. In the early days, Apple computers were the dominant force in desktop computing. But Apple, like all other computer vendors before, were interested in selling a package of hardware and software. Microsoft’s early position as an OS provider to IBM, and its later decision to focus on software and let commodity hardware vendors fight over ever-decreasing profits from hardware, was the primary factor in driving down the cost of personal computers. Hardware vendors competed on price, but “the PC” was advanced not by this chaotic gaggle of vendors, but my Microsoft, above the fray.

Add to this Microsoft’s formidable marketing ability and ruthless competitive practices, and the Windows platform rose to near absolute dominance in a decade.

Microsoft did not, as we all know, invent computing, but what they did do, as stated earlier, was bring the computer into the home of the average Joe and Jane. It’s ironic how it was Microsoft that made computers affordable and now there’s the whole debate over TCO/ROI (Total cost of ownership/Return on investment) and licensing fees.

The Redmond bunch is always examined under a microscope. Everyone watches, from financial analysts to security experts. They are sometimes portrayed unfairly. For instance, some say that Microsoft “stole” the windowing system from Apple and they will tell you how Apple was able to hire engineers and license technology from Xerox, the originators of the windowing system. In my opinion these are subtle differences. Microsoft may have cribbed ideas from Apple, and may have abused their partnership, but let’s look at the evolution of KDE and GNOME. Didn’t they base their windowing environments, to some extent, on Windows? It must be realized that for the computing industry to continue to grow ideas will forever be appropriated, even in the world of proprietary software.

Today, security is one of the biggest issues concerning computing. With viruses and spyware rampant, security has become big business. When MS was developing Windows not even they could foresee the popularity of the Internet. At the time, the Internet was nothing more than a bunch of message boards. Billions of dollars did not flow over the wires daily. At the time, network security was a minor issue. Without Microsoft, the Internet would not have proliferated nearly as quickly. Once again MS did not invent it, but they enabled a huge amount of access to it. If not for Microsoft ,thousand of companies might not exist today.

Microsoft did not only develop an OS, they developed some excellent office applications, some of which revolutionized . They delivered some so-called “Killer application” Programs that were specifically designed to fill a void.

A vast number of modern day GNU/Linux and Mac users were introduced to computing through some version of Windows. They used MS products before they converted to their present day OS of choice. Their basic computer skills were honed on a Windows box. If not for that prior introduction, would they now be effective computer users? and if so to what extent?

Linus Torvalds developed the Linux Kernel. It was not very useful by itself. Thanks to input from Open Source developers, The Free Software Foundation, and the GNU Project, Linux evolved into the backbone of the useful, robust system that we have today. But Linux was originally developed as a way to run a Unix-like system on the kind of commodity Intel hardware that was easily available to everyone, thanks in large part to Microsoft. Had their been no widely available, “open” PC standard, Linux would have had no foothold.

If they did not have Windows to compete with, would the Gnu project be as successful as it is? Isn’t competition with Microsoft the primary driving force behind its success? Furthermore, even if the GNU Project was developed to the same level of efficiency as it currently stands, (without the existence of Microsoft) would any GNU/Linux vendor have the ability to produce the marketing power of Microsoft enabling them to bring computing to the masses?

A lot of the desktop versions of GNU/Linux we use today are Microsoft look-a-likes and function similarly to Windows. An inexperienced user may not even notice the difference between WindowsXP and distributions such as Lycoris, Linspire formerly Lindows and ELX (Everyone’s Linux) These distros and several others, deliberately copy a Windows scheme. Providing similar desktop backgrounds and familiar icons to those in the Windows world. These upstart Linux distributions are therefore able to ride on Windows’ coat-tails, and provide a computing experience that people are familiar with, thanks to the consolidation of the PC industry that Microsoft effected.

Like it or not The Mighty Giant known as Microsoft stood at the foot of the unknown road and blazed a trail. All of the Desktop OSes we have today owe a dept to the present monopolistic, proprietary King of the desktop. Given the fact that MS toppled Apple and squashed IBM’s OS/2 before it even had a chance, no one could say with absolute certainty what desktop computing, the Internet, or the computing industry itself would look like today if not for Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Microsoft.

Would it be a dry, barren, lifeless, wasteland, or would the fruits of the labor of GNU/Linux, Apple or even IBM have blossomed into a computing system we could never imagine. The world will never know.

236 Comments

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