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OS wars

June 9, 1997
by Zac Belado

Ever once in a while, when I’m bored, I like to start OS flame wars on the various mailing lists I’m subscribed to. It helps keep my evenings interesting and there is almost nothing quite like reading people’s heated attacks against another person’s OS to make you remember that we are, really, only recently descended from apes.

They say that a cat is only three meals away from being feral. If that is true then a computer geek is only a well placed OS insult away from turning into a snarling, slobbering beast. Referring to Windows 95 as a “over-hyped DOS shell” or calling the MacOS “tired, 80’s technology” is, among the keyboard bound, tantamount to slapping a person’s face or referring to their mother in a disparaging manner.

This constant, and amusing, bickering has been ubiquitous among hard-core computer users for years. DOS users sneered at the original MacOS and its icons and pulldown menus. Mac users laughed at the arcane and incomprehensible format of DOS commands. Times changed, OSes transformed, but the main argument has always remained, at its core, an argument of the user friendliness of the Mac versus the access of DOS/Windows users to the guts of the OS.

Mac users were told they were using a “toy” OS and DOS/Windows users were told they were using an incomprehensible, technical cludge for geeks. In a year all that will change and in such a dramatic fashion that you will soon hear Mac users chiding Windows users for using a “toy” OS. Two threads in the development of the two main OSes will in a few short months change the very way you think about those operating systems.

The first catalyst will be Rhapsody, Apple’s overhaul and redesign of the NeXT operating system. CLI access to a UNIX kernel will radically alter the way that users interact with their Macs and also begin to eliminate the technological inferiority complex that many Mac users used to have until Win95 helped eliminate that problem for them.

With Rhapsody there will be little or no limitation to a person’s ability to “get under the hood”. And, it will have the MacOS look and feel running on top of it. All the power with none of the accompanying UI sacrifices that UNIX, or any CLI, previously inflicted on its users.

The second change will be brought into focus by Microsoft’s over-reliance on games and gaming technology to sell their PCs and OS. Ask any geek why they want to get a PC and, after the usual bogus answers detailing cross-platform development issues, you’ll eventually find out that Diablo, or whatever the hot PC game this month is, doesn’t run on a Mac yet.

The Win95 users I know fall into three categories; office users, developers and gamers. And lately it has been the gamers and their demands that have been driving hardware and software development for Win95. Games are great for the short-term health of Win95 because the high demands of most games force people to buy new hardware. As a long term plan it runs the risk of branding the PC as an expensive gaming system. An effect you can already see as the ability of the PC to play games is becoming a more important selling point for the platform.

In a year, Rhapsody users will be running Apache and Win95 (or will it actually be 98 by that point) users will be running StarCraft and Quake2. And while I don’t think this will make a dent in the market share that Windows has, it will change the way that people look at the two operating systems. Games versus applications, web servers versus deathmatches.

Imagine a world where the snotty UNIX geeks all have Apple logos on their machines.

Now, that’s thinking different.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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