Twilight of the proprietary systems

Summary:As the proprietary systems disappear, should we miss them? Peter Judge is pleased to see IBM's iSeries has at least a bit more life to it.

I used to think we should watch how vendors treat the customers they have on their proprietary systems, because they would treat everyone that way if they could get away with it.

That was in the bad old days, before "open systems". Every supplier had mainframe and server systems that trapped users, preventing them from buying from other suppliers. If the user couldn't go elsewhere, then the vendor could charge them anything they could get away with. IBM, as many will probably remember, was the Big Nasty here.

Next, open systems led to a vast range of Unix systems, all of which did more or less the same thing. They ran on a vast number of hardware platforms, including processors from Motorola, National Semiconductor, and Intel, and the Alpha, PA, Power and Sparc Risc chips.

All that is clearing away now, as the market consolidates on one instruction set and a couple of operating systems. But in among all the changes, what is happening to the old proprietary systems?

Surprisingly enough, a few are still around. Not surprisingly, it is IBM that has the best survival rate. Its mainframes still hold the lion's share of business data, and are touted as Web servers and consolidation servers for hard-to-manage Intel servers. And the iSeries, which descended from the System 38 of the 1980s via the AS/400 of the 1990s, had a big facelift this week.

Meanwhile, Digital's OpenVMS -- one of the most popular operating systems from the pre-open systems days -- is in terminal decline, and unlikely to survive long after its Alpha hardware base is phased out. Most of the others have completely disappeared, along with many of their suppliers.

Why is it that the most-hated proprietary systems supplier of the 1980s is now the only one that has satisfied customers and a roadmap in 2003? The answer is in the way the different operating systems were handled.

Operating systems, like any technology, wither away. They die when they no longer have a big enough user base to support continued development, and new demands come up that can't be met.

Last year, the iSeries sold 24,100 systems worldwide, and is still IBM's largest user base, according to IDC figures. OpenVMS, by contrast, sold 6,300 systems.

Topics: Tech Industry

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