Operating systems: Expect the unexpected

The days of the simplistic one computer/one operating system are gone for good, says Andreas Pfeiffer. Increasingly, MacOS X and Windows XP and Linux will represent different flavors of the same basic idea of computing.

COMMENTARY-- When Microsoft unleashed Windows XP this fall, it must have expected to take the world by storm. The new version of the operating system was pushed by the most extensive marketing effort in the history of personal computing. It was also expected to move sales of new computers significantly, as users would hopefully rush to upgrade their equipment in order to be well-prepared for the exciting new features in Windows XP.

As fate would have it, however, the whole thing turned out rather differently than what one might have imagined. Launched in the wake of the terrible events of september 11, Windows XP generated at best a tepid reaction in the market. Indeed, the main theme of Microsoft's marketing campaign (centered around the wonderful digital world opening up for lucky Windows XP users) seems very much out-of-sync with a world politically and economically in turmoil.

Not that Microsoft is the only operating system vendor struggling to get users to upgrade. While MacOS X has earned a lot of respect on technological grounds, the absence of MacOS X native versions of flagship products such as Adobe Photoshop or QuarkXPress has slowed adoption of the new operating system in Apple's core markets. It is only in the past few weeks--particuarly since the launch of some major MacOS X savvy application packages such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Illustrator--that the new Macintosh system has started to be taken as a viable alternative.

Expect disruption
It would be wrong, however, to look at these events only as speed bumps in the normal course of operating systems adoption. While there can be little doubt that over time MacOS X and Windows XP will have a majority market share in their respective markets, those incidents may well be the sign of more important, underlying shifts in the operating system landscape which could result in profound changes in the long term.

Part of this could be the underlying nature of the operating systems in question. It is quite ironic to note that at the exact time when Microsoft releases its most user-friendly version of Windows to date, Apple comes out with an operating system which, due to its Unix base, is finally credible for IT managers and hard-core techies. To see Macintosh users exchanging shell scripts and terminal commands is the ultimate sign that Apple enthusiasts' loyalty to their environment defies comprehension: not so long ago, DOS commands were the easiest way of provoking outbursts of laughter from Macintosh fans. It remains, however, that MacOS X now attracts users and developers who had written the Macintosh environment off for good, especially in high-end 3D graphics and scientific markets. In the meantime, Linux continues to gain ground in the server part of the market.

Windows XP, on the other hand, has alienated quite a significant portion of the IT community. There is considerable concern about Microsoft's licensing plans, and the company's intention to use Windows XP as a vehicle to promote services has also met with widespread unease. As a result, migration to Windows XP on a corporate level is slower than one might have expected. On the end-user side of the spectrum, Windows XP will be adopted by the technically competent users, and otherwise follow the general equipment curve, i.e., shipped automatically as part of a newly purchased PC. And this will take time--even without taking in account the current state of the PC industry.

As far as the consumer market is concerned, it also remains to be seen how Microsoft's XBox will affect sales: gaming performance is clearly one of the major motivations for upgrading an aging PC in this market segment. If the public at large buys into Microsoft's vision of their game console as a home entertainment center, this could definitely have a negative impact on the sales of consumer PCs.

The uncertainty factors
But even beyond the simple question of operating system adoption, the computing world has arrived at a point of widespread confusion. This industry very clearly is at crossroads. Microsoft is betting the house on subscription-based distribution of software and services; Apple, on the other hand is sticking with a more traditional, application based model.

The situation is complex. The big software vendors are increasingly struggling to provide meaningful and compelling new products. On the other hand, the ASP model of distributing software services on a per-usage basis has been a disappointment and it remains to be seen whether Microsoft will be more successful with its Hailstorm initiative, trying to sell software (including its flagship office products) on a subscription basis.

The reality is that the computing market has grown far too complicated for any new distribution or software model to capture significant market share in a short period of time. It will take years for the market to sort itself out. One thing, however, is certain: the days of the simplistic "one computer/one operating system" paradigm are gone for good. Increasingly, MacOS X and Windows XP (and of course Linux) will represent not only different flavors of the same basic idea of computing, but increasingly different approaches to achieving a variety of tasks using an increasing number of devices. We are at the beginning of something--not at the end.

Andreas Pfeiffer is an industry analyst and editor in chief of the Pfeiffer Report on Emerging Trends and Technologies.