An “operating system” is what underlies all the various digital devices you use on a daily basis. Without it, your smartphone, computer, or tablet is just a collection of silicon, plastic, various metals, and some glass. The operating system, or OS, is the software that allows these otherwise inanimate objects to come to life. Other applications hum along on top of the OS. Without it, these apps are just a collection of code that can do nothing.
Most folks are somewhat aware of the OS on their computer, especially when it is not functioning properly. Anyone who has used the Microsoft Windows OS has most likely experienced the “Blue Screen of Death” (or BSoD), which is that terrible screen that erupts from your monitor when the OS crashes so hard that everything is dumped from memory. That string of indecipherable numbers on the BSoD screen are referencing the exact memory address spaces where the error occurred. Those numbers don’t mean anything to anyone—probably not even the evil programmers who originally created the BSoD and thought it would be funny to display the memory addresses to an end-user who doesn’t even have an inkling as to what they are, let alone how bits and bytes are moved in and out of random access memory on their computer.
Not to pick on Microsoft though. The Apple OS has its own version of the BSoD. Usually it’s just a simple screen that instructs you to restart your computer by holding down the power button. Other times it’s a debugger log that is even more hideous than any BSoD you’ve ever seen.
But BSoDs are becoming a thing of the past as operating systems have matured and stabilized as a technology. That’s been my experience anyway over the arc of a 20-year career in IT during which I’ve deployed and maintained thousands of Windows (as well as some Apple and Linux-based) computers.
As the stability of the OS has improved, it has receded to the background. This is particularly the case with mobile devices such as smartphones. Operating systems are increasingly becoming ubiquitous and as they do, users are less and less aware of what runs the devices they rely upon on a daily basis—let alone how any of it even works.
And it now looks as though 2013 may have been the last year you will ever pay directly for an operating system, including Microsoft Windows. With Apple’s announcement in October that the latest upgrade to its OS, which is called “Mavericks,” would be free of charge, the era of the free operating system has officially begun.
I say “officially” because there have been free operating systems, such as Linux, for many years now. But for the most part these “open-source” operating systems have been outside the mainstream of most home and corporate users due to market inertia and some required technical savviness on the part of the end-user to install, maintain, and use these “free” operating systems.
All of this is bad news for Microsoft, whose Windows operating system has been the dominant OS on the desktop computer for many years now. In fact, the OS is what made Microsoft. For those of us who are old enough to remember the Time Before the Internet—those dark ages when desktop computers were disconnected islands of data processing—we probably remember MS-DOS, or the “Microsoft Disk Operating System.” Released in 1981, MS-DOS was the brainchild of Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Later, it was replaced by Microsoft Windows, which was really just MS-DOS with a “graphical user interface,” or GUI (pronounced “gooey”) running on top.
Fast-forward 30 years, and Microsoft Windows is still the dominant desktop OS. If you buy a PC today, it will probably come with Windows 8 on it. Approximately a quarter of Microsoft’s revenue is generated from operating system and/or licensing sales. Obviously Microsoft can’t just go cold-turkey on giving away their operating system for free. They did, however, make the first step in that direction by offering Windows 8.1 to consumers for free.
That was more of a baby step though as this free upgrade was only offered to existing Windows 8 customers. Industry pundits argue that this move by Microsoft is merely a marketing ploy and that “Windows 8.1” is just a collection of updates that otherwise would have been available for free to licensed users via Microsoft’s Windows Update service.
Nonetheless, it signals a change in Microsoft’s strategy. Microsoft has a unique challenge ahead. As the market paradigm shifts and consumers come to expect not to pay for operating systems, but rather have them bundled with value-added devices and services, Microsoft will need to also shift toward a devices and services model. They’ve already begun this transformation, but they may be a few years behind and billions of dollars short to gracefully reinvent themselves without undergoing some serious restructuring pain.
When Microsoft was founded in 1975, they seized on the paradigm shift toward desktop computers. At that time the company best poised to capitalize on that paradigm shift was IBM. They didn’t and went into a corporate tail-spin with declining revenues and massive corporate downsizing that rocked the organization to its core.
Today, Microsoft is in a similar position and struggling to change. If they do not, they will go through the same upheaval as IBM did during the early 1990s. History seems to be steeped in irony. The very operating system that brought Microsoft to prominence may also prove to be their undoing.
Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson. Archives of his columns and other postings can be found on his blog at: blog.insidethebox.org