Today, there’s only one operating system: Unix. (Okay, there are two, but we’ll get to that.) This is why I contend that the OS doesn’t matter—or that we need to take another look at the word’s content, at what we mean when we say ‘Operating System’.
The only exception is Windows. Initially built on top of DOS, Microsoft painstakingly added version after version, always striving for backward compatibility while, at the same time, adding new features. It didn’t always work well (who wants to remember Windows Me and Vista?) but it worked well enough because Microsoft never gave up. They fixed mistakes that they claimed didn’t exist, and now we have the well-respected Windows 7. (Inevitably, critics will say that Microsoft wouldn’t have gotten away with such a tortuous path if it weren’t for its vigorously enforced monopoly.)
Windows will live on — in a PC industry now at a plateau. But otherwise, in the high-growth Cloud and smartphone segments, it’s a Unix/Linux world. We need to look elsewhere to find the differences that matter.
In the 90s, Apple was considered to be the outsider, the loner, the soloist. Apple was the one personal computer maker not making Windows computers (there were others, obviously, but Apple was the poster child for non-Microsoft OSes). The received wisdom was that Microsoft, having wisely decided to license their OS far and wide, was at the head of a legion of companies, and that Apple was doomed because they were the one company making their own OS.
Today that logic is turned on its head. As Jean-Louis Gassée says, Apple is using Unix, both for OS X and for iOS. Linux is Unix based (obviously). Android is Unix-based, as is QNX and Palm’s WebOS. So now Microsoft is in the position of being the soloist: the one company making a non-Unix mainstream OS (again, there are others, but Microsoft is the obvious target here).
So the question is: will the combined efforts of everyone-but-Microsoft be enough to cause Redmond to tumble? Gassée’s point about the OS being irrelevant is largely on the mark, but if that’s true, then Unix vs. Microsoft is largely irrelevant. What matters isn’t OS X vs. Windows, but iOS — in the form of the iPhone and iPad — vs. Windows Phone 7, in the form of whoever-licenses-it. In that fight Microsoft is really struggling for relevance in a world dominated by iOS and Android, but to paint iOS and Android as brothers-in-arms just because they’re both Unix-based is absurd.
In the end, the whole package counts, and everyone is a loner. Google doesn’t “win” if Android wins, at least not in the same way Microsoft won because Windows won. Google has no significant Android monetization strategy, and even if they did their bread and butter would still be AdWords. Google is definitely looking for a second act, but monetarily, Android isn’t it.
Getting back to Microsoft, even if Apple and Google aren’t holding hands and skipping, Microsoft has to feel the heat of being the main non-Unix OS. It will be interesting to see how they handle it.