Dr. Mark Humphrys

School of Computing. Dublin City University.

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Dominant companies: Microsoft

One of the defining features of desktop/laptop computing (but not other markets) is Microsoft's dominance of the OS market.

Many people ask: Why is Microsoft Windows dominant on the desktop? How did it get that way?

The Microsoft dominance of the desktop OS market began in the 1980s with the command-line OS DOS for the original IBM-compatible PC.
Apple from 1984 popularised the new mouse-and-windows graphical UI, with what is now called "classic" Mac OS
It took some time for Microsoft to compete in the GUI market.
From Windows 3 onwards (especially Windows 3.1, 1992) Microsoft pulled ahead and became the dominant PC GUI OS.
Microsoft is still dominant in that market today.

The docudrama Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999).
About the OS war between Apple and Microsoft, 1980s-90s.
See clips.
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 Microsoft win the desktop? (Why did Apple lose?)

So Apple has beaten Microsoft in many new markets. But why did it lose the desktop?

Most people would agree that DOS and Windows (before Windows 95) were harder to use, for most users, than the Apple Mac at the same time. So why did Microsoft Windows still win the OS war?

Some ideas:

  1. Apple OS was always tied to Apple hardware. Microsoft just made software - OS allowed you choice of hardware.

  2. As a consequence of the above: Windows PCs tended to be much cheaper than Apples. This is probably the no.1 reason.

  3. Apple seemed more for fun/graphics than for business in 1980s-90s. Graphic designers liked Apple machines. But most of business preferred DOS and Windows.

  4. Possible cause of the above: Apple had no command-line before OS X. You had to point and click.

    • Mac OS X (2001 on, now macOS) is based on UNIX.
    • Has Terminal (proper UNIX command line).

  5. The above is in fact why I preferred DOS/Windows to the Mac. Because I liked to use the DOS command-line. Techies and programmers in general preferred DOS/Windows to the classic Mac. You could customise, program and script things in DOS/Windows. The Mac seemed more restrictive.

  6. That is, Apple was too extremist in having (until 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 was tolerant of multiple different styles of interface.

  7. Once Windows pulled ahead, it was self-sustaining. OS X introduced a command-line in 2001, but by then the competition was over, and people wanted Windows for compatibility with everyone else.

  8. Microsoft understood business better by being fanatic about backward compatibility? See Chicken and Egg Problems by Joel Spolsky, on backward compatibility, and how Microsoft won the OS wars.

These are only ideas and suggestions. They may not all be true / important.


"The Mac was too easy to use"

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. It was seen as a "toy" system. And so it lost the business market.

"The Mac was not easy to use"

An alternative theory is that the Mac was not easy to use!

This is how I felt about it. I didn't find the Mac easy to use, since it didn't allow me write command-line scripts. As a programmer, I preferred UNIX and DOS/Windows.

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

Microsoft has always been more tolerant of multiple styles of interaction with the computer (including all sorts of "ugly" backward compatibility). Whereas Apple has always had more of a "vision" that you either buy into or not.

In 2007, Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone and declares (largely rightly) that physical keyboards in smartphones are now obsolete because of multi-touch.

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard, from the satire site The Onion (January 5, 2009), pokes fun at Apple's enthusiasm for radical new solutions.
Apple (rightly) has got very excited about its innovations such as desktop GUI and phone multi-touch. They are fond of declaring that the way you like to interact with a computer is now "obsolete".
In The Onion's satire they go too far. I love the Steve Jobs quote that people who use keyboards are "standing in the way of human progress".

Operating Systems - A natural monopoly?

Once Microsoft Windows got a monopoly, it was self-sustaining.

Because the OS is so fundamental to all applications, there may be 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 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) at one point used OS monopoly to destroy competition in browser market. At one point IE was completely dominant.

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

Usage share of Web browsers up to 2014.

Usage share of desktop Web browsers up to 2015.
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.

Consequences of open file format

Microsoft is facing challenges

Microsoft is facing huge challenges. But it is easy to forget that it is still one of the biggest companies in the world.

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

Windows 8 marked a new UI for Windows, trying to have a similar interface on PCs, tablets and phones.
Microsoft had a lot of trouble getting people to buy into this.

Recent Windows versions in order: XP - Vista - 7 - 8 - 10.

Usage as at 2016 is dominated by 7.

Windows 8.
From here. Creative Commons.
I think there are two issues for people (like me, I admit) who don't like Windows 8:
  1. The aesthetics. This is entirely subjective, of course. I personally find the UI extremely ugly, so ugly that I would never buy a machine with this UI. I wouldn't use a tablet or smartphone with this UI either. Not everyone agrees, of course. Many think it is beautiful.
  2. The idea that my desktop should have a similar UI to my tablet and my smartphone. I personally don't want this, and would avoid any desktop that was like my tablet and smartphone. Not everyone agrees, of course. Many think it's a great idea.
Some discussion:

Windows 10

Windows 10 screenshot.
From The Verge.

A popular meme (origin unknown) compares Metro to 1990s AOL design.
Is this unfair?
Metro on Win 8 and Win 10 looks like this to me.
Instead of convincing me I'm wrong, Microsoft should go down the Unix route of allowing multiple GUIs.

ancientbrain.com      w2mind.org      humphrysfamilytree.com

On the Internet since 1987.

Note: Links on this site to user-generated content like Wikipedia are highlighted in red as possibly unreliable. My view is that such links are highly useful but flawed.