Dr. Mark Humphrys

School of Computing. Dublin City University.

Home      Blog      Teaching      Research      Contact


CA249      CA318      CA425      CA651

w2mind.computing.dcu.ie      w2mind.org

PC operating systems (single user)

Microsoft dominance. Been that way for a long time.

Usage share of PC operating systems, 2014.
Microsoft near-monopoly.

Desktop Operating System Market Share, 2014, by marketshare.hitslink.com

Usage share of desktop operating systems, 2013-2014.
From StatCounter.com (and see their main site).

PC operating systems

Why did the Mac lose (and Microsoft win)?

DOS and Windows, despite being harder to use than the Apple Mac, soundly defeated the Mac in sales in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By the mid-1990s, the competition was over. Microsoft had won. And it is still dominant today.

The paradox is not why the techies did not use the Mac (I used DOS because it had a command-line). The paradox is why ordinary corporate and home users did not buy the Mac, which would have made their lives easier.

The docudrama Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999).
Not a bad film. It ends in 1999 with Microsoft triumphant over Apple.
But this was before the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad.
10 years later, and Apple would overtake Microsoft again.

Why did the Mac lose? Explanation 1 - "The Paradox of Beauty"

David Gelernter has an interesting theory in The Aesthetics of Computing, 1998 (Ch.2, "The Paradox of Beauty"). He suggests that Windows won because the Mac was too easy to use, at a time when computers were meant to be hard to use.

He makes the comparison with cars, where every advance in ease-of-use, such as electric starters and even closed tops, was resisted by the "macho" car culture, which preferred cars to be hard to use. We see this even today, where computerised control in cars is resisted by Europeans, who prefer to do by hand many tedious jobs - such as managing the clutch and engine speeds - that could be handled by a computer.

Why did the Mac lose? Explanation 2 - It was not a better interface for power users

For me, UNIX is easier to use than either the Mac or DOS/Windows because of its powerful programmable command-line. I didn't actually find the Mac easy to use, since it didn't allow me write short command-line scripts.

This leads to another reason why the Mac may have failed: It was too extremist in having (until Mac OS X) no command-line at all, and forcing you to use windows and menus instead of just having it as an option. The Mac had an extremist philosophy, whereas DOS/Windows and UNIX were more tolerant of multiple different styles of interface. I say that the Mac is a better user interface, but of course I'm saying (patronisingly) that it's a better interface for other people. I don't really believe it's a better interface for me.

So maybe the Mac lost because it lost the power users (programmers, sysadmins), who preferred UNIX and DOS throughout the 1980s-90s. Not because they were being macho, but because no-command-line really isn't a good interface for power users.

But why did ordinary users follow the power users?

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard, from The Onion, pokes fun at "extremist" user interfaces.
I love the Steve Jobs quote that people who use keyboards are "standing in the way of human progress".

Why did the Mac lose? Other explanations

  1. Apple OS tied to Apple hardware. Microsoft OS still allows you choice of hardware companies.
  2. (Related to above:) PCs tended to be cheaper than Apples.

  3. Chicken and Egg Problems - Interesting article by Joel Spolsky on backward compatibility, and how Microsoft won the OS wars.

  4. Can you think of other reasons?

Operating Systems - A natural monopoly?

Because the OS is so fundamental to all applications, there is a tendency to standardise on an agreed OS. This can be done 2 ways:

  1. An openly agreed, open-source standard developed by co-operation among many organisations, like HTML, XML, and indeed most of the protocols on the Internet.


  2. One organisation gaining a monopoly, e.g. Microsoft Windows, and everyone agreeing to use their products. This will normally be closed-source.

In both cases, all applications run on a common platform.

The disadvantage of the 2nd case is that you are at the mercy of whatever the monopolist decides to give you.

Free Enterprise

Free enterprise works because competition leads to better products and better choice.

Sometimes this doesn't work, and, for whatever reason, the market turns into a monopoly in which there is seemingly no competition.

For example, many have disputed that Word, Excel and IE gained dominance in the word processor, spreadsheet and browser markets respectively by simply being the best products. A common complaint was that they gained it because they came from the company that made the Operating System. No one else had a chance. The latecomer Internet Explorer's rapid and total defeat of the pioneer Netscape is perhaps the most spectacular example of this.

For many years, people argued about whether the state (in particular the US and EU) should do anything about the Microsoft monopoly. Whether government should intervene to restore competition in the industry. In the end, little was done, but other factors caused the monopoly to ease (though not end).

Browser market share

Microsoft (it is argued) used OS monopoly to destroy competition in browser market.

IE dominance has eventually declined though. Easy to switch browser. Not so easy to switch OS.

Usage share of Web browsers up to 2013.

Usage share of desktop Web browsers, 2013-2014.
From StatCounter.com (and see their main site).

Can (or should) the state end the OS monopoly?

The state might consider the following options.
  1. The OS monopoly cannot be ended easily. The market is probably a natural monopoly anyway. One could in theory force Microsoft to make the OS open-source, but that would be fairly extreme.

  2. Another solution: Allow Microsoft keep their OS monopoly, but open up the application markets to competition.
    This could be done two ways:

    1. Break up the company into the OS, and the rest.
      This sounds extreme, but was done before with AT&T.

    2. A less extreme solution: Open up the file formats, so others can build apps to read Word and Excel files.
      This is a far less drastic solution.
      This in fact has happened.

Open file formats

The "open file formats" option above has happened. Microsoft has been pressured to open its formats due to anti-trust cases, and governments (and companies) being increasingly unwilling to store their official documents in a secret format.

Microsoft is facing challenges

Decline of the PC

Microsoft still has a near-monopoly in PCs.
But PCs have declined in importance (as smartphones and tablets have emerged).

Windows 8

Microsoft is also having trouble getting people to upgrade.
Recent Windows versions in order: XP - Vista - 7 - 8.
Current usage is dominated by XP and 7.

The Google monopoly

Google has flaws:
Google sometimes uses third-party titles (e.g. from dmoz.org) instead of the site's own title.
Here, Google links to my site, not using my own title, but using a misspelled title written by someone else.
There are ways to stop it using third-party titles but many sites will not know this. It is a bad idea by Google.
I have even seen sites which are given hostile third-party titles which Google uses to link to them.

The YouTube monopoly

YouTube (owned by Google) now has massive power over what videos people worldwide can see.
And yet some of its banning decisions are odd:

You might agree, but that's not the point. The point is that the Google corporation has massive and unaccountable power to decide what people can see.

Social media companies have power

Social media companies in general have huge power to decide who can publish: Social media companies are mostly American. Perhaps US government tolerates this for purpose of information gathering. Or perhaps US government is just not on the ball.

But either way, the point is that decisions on who gets a good platform to speak and who does not are made by corporations not governments.

Feeds      HumphrysFamilyTree.com

Bookmark and Share           On Internet since 1987.