This week, Mark Shuttleworth closed the longstanding Ubuntu bug #1, which simply read, “Microsoft has majority market share.” Because Microsoft didn’t lose its market share lead to Ubuntu, or Red Hat, or some other conventional Linux distribution, some people, including John C. Dvorak, are interpreting this as some kind of surrender.
I don’t see it as surrender at all. Microsoft’s dominant position, which seemed invincible in 2004 when Shuttleworth opened that bug, is slipping away. They still dominate PCs, but PCs as we know it are a shrinking part of the overall computing landscape, and the growth is all happening elsewhere.
I have (or at least had) a reputation as a Microsoft hater. That’s a vast oversimplification. I’m not anti-Microsoft. I’m pro-competition. I’m also pro-Amiga, and I’ll go to my grave maintaining that the death of Amiga set the industry back 20 years. I have Windows and Linux boxes at home, my wife has (believe it or not) an Ipad, and at work I’m more comfortable administering Linux than Windows right now, which seems a bit strange, especially considering it’s a Red Hat derivative and I haven’t touched Red Hat in what seems like 400 years.
What Shuttleworth is acknowledging is that we have something other than a duopoly again, for the first time in more than 20 years, and the industry is innovating and interesting again.
I remember the late 1980s. The landscape was competitive, and different from today, though there were similarities. Entry-level computers were typically 8 bit computers limited to addressing 64 kilobytes of memory at a time, though some 8-bits were able to ship with more memory than that due to some clever hacks. Those machines were showing their age, but still had some life left, and they were affordable. At the midrange, you had the IBM PC/XT and clones. They were showing their age too, but they were affordable and versatile. The high end was very divisive. In one corner, you had anything IBM-compatible with a 286 or better processor. The other three corners were occupied by rival systems based on the Motorola 68000 family of CPUs: Apple’s Macintosh, Commodore’s Amiga, and Atari’s ST.
The Mac, Amiga, and ST were more similar than they were different, and actually were more similar to each other than Intel and AMD-based systems are today. But in a day when 25 MHz was a really fast machine, there wasn’t a lot of power for the layers of abstraction that we have today to cover up two systems’ differences. And the companies that made those machines, and the people who bought them, hated each other.
Making things more complicated, the ST was designed by ex-Commodore engineers working for Atari, and the Amiga was designed by ex-Atari engineers working for Commodore. Depending on your age, you’ll either find that ironic, or that explains everything.
The magazines that covered all computers lamented that rivalry, to an extent, wishing idealistically that Commodore, Atari and Apple would work together to bring computing to the next level. What really happened is that Commodore went out of business first, Atari gave up by merging with a short-lived maker of hard disks, and after outlasting those two rivals, Apple came dangerously close to going out of business too.
But for a time, those four companies kept one another somewhat honest. Apple contributed user-friendliness, Commodore contributed pre-emptive multitasking and efficiency along with great graphics and sound, and Atari contributed a rock-bottom price along with very good graphics and sound. In 1985, IBM and Compaq (and by extension, Microsoft) were none of those things.
The IBM crowd wasn’t exactly a big happy family itself. You had your DOS partisans, your Windows partisans, your GEM partisans, OS/2 partisans, and (believe it or not) Unix partisans. Ultimately Windows won, because it incorporated just enough of what everyone else was offering.
And then things got boring and stayed that way for a very long time.
Now, by my count, we have at least four viable competitors again. Microsoft and Apple, of course. Google’s Android. And the rest of the Linux ecosystem. Not only is Android challenging Apple on phones and tablets, but we’re going to see Android computers this year. Android requires less hardware to run, and the OS license is free, so you can get a nice computing experience for $200 or less. Since Windows 8 is so akin to starting over, that gives Apple and even Android a chance to gain computer market share, not just tablet and phone share.
And I don’t think it’s much of a stretch, once Android invades that space, for Linux to do the same. The big manufacturers have to get used to standing up to Microsoft, and for now they’re more comfortable doing that with Android. But once one maker realizes that a purer Linux is less awkward than Android on PC hardware, I think others will follow. It was like non-Intel CPUs: Once Compaq realized they could undercut Packard Bell in price by using Cyrix CPUs and people actually bought them, other PC makers became willing to use Cyrix and AMD CPUs. And, if you’ll notice, Cyrix broke the ice, but of the two, it was AMD who survived. Cyrix didn’t technically go out of business, but VIA isn’t using the brand name anymore, and they’re also using very little, if any, of that technology.
Android is going to prove just about as awkward on the desktop as Windows 8. And I really think that once someone decides to ship a laptop or desktop PC with Linux and any usable GUI–it doesn’t matter which one, just one of them–with Libre Office, Gimp, and every other piece of open-source software worth having, there are going to be people who will buy it just because they see they can do so much with a computer that costs less than Microsoft Office does all by itself, with no hardware.
And I don’t think Ubuntu is dead in the water on phones, either. A phone running Ubuntu would outrun Android at the same speed, because the Ubuntu code is running natively rather than running through a not-quite-Java runtime. With carrier subsidies possibly coming to an end, some segment of the market will like the idea of a really low-end smartphone that runs Ubuntu faster than it runs Android, and they’ll be willing to live with a smaller library of apps to have a faster cheap phone.
And who do I want to win, out of this batch?
Ideally, none of the above. A stalemate would be good. Too much dominance leads to stagnation.