We all know what a computer is, don't we? Chances are that you're using one right now to read this article... Most of us can even name a few types: Windows, Mac, Linux - and if I say you're using Windows now, I'm most likely correct. Why can I say that? Windows is one of the most popular Operating Systems in use, and the most popular on desktop computers.
It was thoughts like these that mande me wonder - what makes some computers successful, while other computers fail?
Computers in the home is not an old phenomena, it started for real in the eighties with computers like ZX80, ZX81 and Spectrum, Vic20, C64, Oric and whatever. What they had in common, was that they were incompatible. With mostly proprietary design, there were not many clones to see but there were some tries: The MSX computers were a co-operation between many companies to make one standard platform, but it was not the big success they hoped...
It was too late at this moment for the 8-bit computers they were, as the new 16-bit computers were beginning to arrive; Atari ST, Amiga, Archimedes, Apple Macintosh and more. All of them very good computers with impressive specifications and easy to use - but still incompatible with each other, and they got into their different niches; Atari in music, Amiga in film and video, the Macintosh with graphics and DTP, but none of them conquered the business market.
Along all of this, IBM produced and sold their own computer, the IBM PC, and a small company called Microsoft did strike a lucky deal to produce the operating system for it. IBM had a good reputation, and it was even possible to make clones of their computer. At least partly, which is why you could see in adverts things like "90% IBM-compatible."
With many producers of computers that after some time got 100% compatible, the benefits were great: If you made a program for one PC, it would work on all the others too, and this was a benefit for programmers. In turn, this benefit made many people make programs for the PC, which in turn sold more units because there were so many programs for them - a good circle for all involved. The little company Microsoft were in a particulary good position, as they had made a deal with IBM to make their OS - everyone needed an OS, and MS-DOS became one of the most popular (even if there were other compatible ones) and with the introduction of Windows 3.0 the most popular.
I won't speculate in how MS-DOS and later Windows came to be the de-facto standard OS for what we today usually call PCs, just state that it did. And for each upgrade of Windows it became more popular too. I won't claim the success is based solely on the OS, as the hardware evolved and got better all the time, but all this meant that it was very tempting to develop for Windows, especially when Windows 95 appeared with it's (relative) ease of use. Other OSes existed for the same hardware, but those users became a small minority.
However, how did the PC compare to the other platforms?
Considering there were many clones made of the PC, while the other computers were proprietary systems (i.e. just one company producing each platform) it was only natural that software on the PC platform had greater sales, but the other systems managed very well for a long time. Many believed (and still do) that a Windows solution was an inferior choice in comparision to many of the alternatives, so there were healthy markets for alternative platforms.
Hardware on the PC however always got better too, and with the introduction of Windows 95 it started to look like a usable platform for many. In addition, manufacturers of other computers had problems of various reasons, causing even more users to look for other alternatives. With more software being made for Windows, especially games using the new hardware to it's fullest this attracted many new and old users.
We know how the situation is now: The Windows PC has the majority of the market. While not all of it, it is in legal terms a monopoly with a large margin. In the earlier phase I believe some of it were caused by luck, with the availability of many clone-manufacturers that ran the same software. Tough decisions, great marketing and so on helped Microsoft take contol over this market, but without the clones and the competition that drove the development forward, the situation would've been different - it could be one of the other platforms that had the same position, or more likely a standard for exchanging documents would've emerged.
With the growth of Internet, it doesn't matter that much that we have the same platforms anymore, and standards for exchanging documents are emerging now. With Java it will also be possible to write programs that can run on many different platforms, as we can see partly in use as java-applets on webpages. That technology will become better as development continues.
We also see another OS emerge, again especially on the PC hardware: Linux. This OS has the same advantage as Windows had - it can run on all the PC clones, but in addition it also exists on other platforms. What is different compared to most other OSes is that Linux is free - you don't have to pay anything to try it. At the moment it's not as easy to install nor use as Windows for example, but it's developed continously and getting more and more popular. A new computer, and I'm here thinking of the new Amiga, is based on Linux, and clones are also encouraged from the beginning. Will we see the history as we know it from Microsoft/Windows repeat itself with new players?
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