The OS Opportunity

A few weeks ago, in a piece here titled “Herd Mentality”, I argued that PC makers who want to succeed should create their own OSes:

It’s not just that Apple is different among computer makers. It’s that Apple is the only one that even can be different, because it’s the only one that has its own OS. Part of the industry-wide herd mentality is an assumption that no one else can make a computer OS — that anyone can make a computer but only Microsoft can make an OS. It should be embarrassing to companies like Dell and Sony, with deep pockets and strong brand names, that they’re stuck selling computers with the same copy of Windows installed as the no-name brands.

Hardware and software both matter, and Apple’s history shows that there’s a good argument to be made for developing integrated hardware and software. But if you asked me which matters more, I wouldn’t hesitate to say software. All things considered I’d much prefer a PC running Mac OS X to a Mac running Windows.

Microsoft, I think we’d all agree, sees things the same way (well, in terms of software being more important). They’ve got PC makers under their thumb.

The most common bit of critical feedback I got in response to “Herd Mentality” is an argument that goes like this: You don’t want a world with several additional desktop OSes. It would make for a compatibility and interoperability nightmare. We were there before, in the early days of the personal computer, and it was a mess.

I say two things to that. First, it may have been a mess, but it was a beautiful mess. It was glorious. It was fun. The Apple II, the IBM PC and DOS, Commodore, Atari, Acorn. The TI-99/4A.

Second, this ain’t then. The world is a very different place today.

In those days, before DOS ran most competing platforms out of the market, interoperability and data interchange were at best difficult, and often impossible. Data was stored in incompatible file formats written to incompatible floppy disks1 by incompatible apps compiled for incompatible CPU architectures. Even later in the ’80s, when networking became common (at least in businesses) the network protocols were proprietary.

That was the world where DOS won out. Get everyone on DOS and you could all open each other’s WordPerfect and 1-2-3 files, if only by sharing them on floppy disks. So DOS gained users, and because it gained users it got developers, and because it gained developers it got more users.

A similar feedback loop is going on with the iPhone today, but it’s far less sticky. The DOS/Windows monopoly grew impregnable because it was a platform where the only way to play along was to join it.

That’s not the way things are today. Sure, there are massive business markets where Windows remains essential. But the Web is a bigger platform than Windows. The Web is universal. Every computer is on the Web. The Web provides us with a core set of software and APIs that work everywhere.

Supposedly, tomorrow Google is set to unveil the details of Chrome OS, but we already know one thing about it: it’s designed around the assumption that the Web is the most important software platform in the world today.

But last week came news of another, similar initiative, from a far smaller company than Google: the Litl — a $700 “webbook”. If you haven’t seen it, go check out their web site — the videos on their support page offer the best introduction to their UI. It’s fascinating and clever in several ways. It is refreshingly simple. And most importantly: it is truly new. I don’t know if Litl is going to be a success — $700 seems steep for this when you can get a MacBook for $999, and the easel mode strikes me as an awkward gimmick without a touchscreen — but everyone involved with the Litl deserves tremendous credit just for having the stones to do this, to say, Hey, maybe computers in 2010 can do better than a user experience that is fundamentally unchanged from the original Macintosh in 1984.

If a small startup can build the Litl, why couldn’t a big company like Dell or Sony? People today still love HP calculators made 30 or even 40 years ago. Has HP made anything this decade that anyone will remember fondly even five years from now? Inkjet printers?

If Palm can create WebOS for pocket-sized computers — replete with an email client, calendaring app, web browser, and SDK — why couldn’t these companies make something equivalent for full-size computers? The hard part of what Palm is doing with WebOS is getting acceptable performance out of a cell phone processor.

These PC makers are lacking in neither financial resources nor opportunity. What they’re lacking is ambition, gumption, and passion for great software and new frontiers. They’re busy dying.

  1. If your computer even had a floppy drive, that is. Some, like the TI-99/4A, typically used cassette tapes. Cassette tapes! ↩︎