The world, as we know it, is intensely dependent on computers. Computers facilitated networking which helped connect the whole world; computers gave rise to Artificial Intelligence which helped perform operations humans never could; computers facilitated the discovery of the unknown; the machines and algorithms made lives easier in almost every way; but what made computers what they are today? Well, the interfaces and applications we use to do what would have been impossible five decades ago is possible because of the operating systems. These operating systems allow users to interact with the hardware through applications. There are multiple operating systems out there, both proprietary and open source, but in the early days of graphical user interface (GUI) based operating systems, there was an extensive battle for market domination between the giants Apple, Microsoft and IBM. However, another player soon appeared who changed the entire scenario of the battlefield.
It was 1979, Steve Jobs drove up to Xerox HQ to see what they have been working on. What he witnessed there paved the way for the future of Apple Incorporated. Xerox had been working on an interface called GUI or Graphical User Interface. Using the GUI one could simply use a mouse to point at elements on the screen and a command would be executed without the user actually typing anything. In Jobs’ mind, it was absolutely revolutionary, and unfortunately for Xerox, its executives were not very impressed by the GUI. Steve Jobs absorbed all the ideas he needed for the next big thing and in 1983 he revealed the LISA operating system.
Additionally, in 1983, during Apple’s annual sales conference, he invited three CEOs for a panel discussion on software. Among the three CEOs was a young Bill Gates who was very optimistic about Microsoft’s partnership with Apple and stated that by 1984, half of Microsoft’s revenue would come from Mac software. This partnership, however, was short lived because one month later Microsoft announced the Windows 1.0 operating system, betraying Apple. A brief legal battle ensued where Apple claimed that Microsoft stole the ‘look and feel’ of Macintosh but this argument was ruled out following the fact that ‘look and feel’ was not covered under copyright. During this time Jobs was having a hard time at Apple and was fired from his own company. He was replaced by John Scully as the CEO. On June 25, 1985 Scully received a memo from Bill Gates who urged Apple to license the Macintosh operating system to other PC manufacturers. He wrote “It is now impossible for Apple to create a standard out of their innovative technology without support from other personal computer manufacturers. Apple must open the Macintosh architecture to have the independent support required to gain momentum and establish a standard.” Apple, being Apple, disregarded the memo.
Another proprietary software firm - UNIX System Labs, developed UNIX and protected it by stating that anyone who would look at the UNIX source code was ‘mentally contaminated’ and would not be allowed to develop anything similar. As the tech giants fought for the domination of the PC market, a lot of programmers and developers were growing rebellious towards the proprietary software industry. This is where Richard Stallman came in. He developed GNU which is an acronym for GNU’s Not UNIX and placed it under a GPL or General Public License. GNU was free of any UNIX code and the source code was free for anyone to use and tweak. In fact, GPL stated that the developers would have to share the source code along with the softwares.
In 1990, Microsoft launched Windows 3 which was a huge upgrade from the previous versions of Windows. This is when a multitude of PC users migrated to Windows and Microsoft now held 90% of the market share. However, not all were satisfied with Windows or UNIX. Windows did not give developers enough control and UNIX came with a price tag of $5000 which was simply outrageous. In 1991, a 21 years old Finnish boy named Linus Torvalds came up with a DIY project and released 10,000 lines of code for his own operating system which he called Linux. He placed Linux under the GPL and asked other fellow developers to chip in. Soon Linux grew and gave momentum to the open source community.
1993 witnessed the launch of Windows NT for servers but servers were not really popular among small businesses back then. In the following years huge number of developers and corporates adopted Linux for both PC use and server use. The fact that Linux provided complete control to the user was a huge factor to support this migration. By 1997, Apple was almost bankrupt, and Steve Jobs was called back to act as an interim CEO or an iCEO which gave Jobs the idea of ‘i’ moniker. At the MacWorld conference in 1997 Jobs took to the stage and in a surprising turn of events, announced Apple’s partnership with its arch-rival Microsoft. IBM, in 2000 announced that they would invest $1 billion in Linux and said that Linux would serve as the “future of server computing”. IBM eventually shifted to the server computing business and adopted completely adopted the Linux architecture.
The arrival of smartphones in 2007, gave birth to iOS, Windows Phone OS, and Android. Although Microsoft may have won the battle of PC market dominance, the smartphone market was taken by Google. Google was and early adopter of Linux in the mobile OS market and developed Android as an open source project. This resulted in the majority of market share being held by Android and Windows Mobile OS was ultimately shut down. After years of denying the potential of open source, Microsoft finally submitted to its power after the management shifted to Satya Nadella. In 2013, Microsoft launched Azure web services and offered Linux virtual machines. In fact, by 2014, 20% of Azure was Linux and, in the fall of 2019, Windows 10 OS started shipping with full Linux kernel.
The power of open source was denied by the proprietary software firms for decades but ultimately, they had to adopt open source. Evolution made these firms survive. Apple adopted open source internally as well, but still has the proprietary hold on its products. As of today Apple stands as a walled garden which offers amazing products and services which work like magic within the garden; Windows is a modular OS which is user friendly and loved by average consumers; Linux is used by corporates, tech geeks, developers, power users, businesses, and open source activists; While IBM is used by corporates and businesses who require server computing. While Apple may have dominated the consumer electronics market, Microsoft got the personal computer OS market and IBM may have the Linux based server market; with the advent of cloud computing, the war is still on and it remains to be seen who will dominate the new-found Linux based cloud computing market.