Opening the Closed Door

Was the desktop operating system a fluke? A rip in the space-time continuum? It’s starting to look that way.

Before Microsoft/Intel/IBM relationship in the early 80s, operating systems were either free (relatively given that there was not Internet distribution) or were controlled with the hardware. IBM and DEC, for instance, owned everything about the computer. Apple, too.

But thanks to the IBM relationship, Microsoft established a value for the operating system separate from the hardware and was able to build a massive business out of it. A lot of industry veterans argued at the time that this was the natural evolution of the industry, this separation of church (hardware) and state (software). Even Apple and Palm tried to license their OS’ for a while.

It seems, though, that the pendulum has swung back the other way. Operating systems are once again either free or controlled by the hardware vendor. Look at the mobile landscape:

  • Apple iPhone: proprietary operating system
  • RIM BlackBerry: proprietary operating system
  • Google Android: open sourced, free operating system
  • Symbian: open sourced,free operating system
  • Windows Mobile: proprietary, licensed operating system

With Nokia’s acquisition of Symbian and its subsequent open sourcing, this makes Windows Mobile the odd-ball. Apple re-pioneered the closed operating system with iPod and its resurgent Macintoshes. Now, I don’t hear much about licensing the OS any more.

Does the new world order spell the end of licensed operating systems? Does this hurt Microsoft or make them more powerful as the only licensing partner in town? In an era of micro-computing — where computers are in everything and we carry tons of them with us — do only these models (and a hybrid where proprietary systems are build on a Linux core) work?

There’s a lot of money riding on the outcome.

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