Operating systems are quickly becoming commodity items

The operating system is in danger of becoming a commodity item like the PC. It’s less important than the applications that run on top of it and Microsoft’s Vista launch is amply demonstrating that factThere’s some debate over whether Microsoft’s new OS has been a success or not and, of course, it’s early days yet, but one thing is clear: it’s no Windows 95. Windows 95 was light-years ahead of DOS and made Windows 3.1 look like it was hatched in a high school computing lab. Windows 95 redefined the operating system.

It was a marvel of organization: a sturdy, reliable piece of software that got the job done and looked good doing it. I’m not going to quibble that Apple may have got there first and done it better, but for PC users, Windows 95 was a great leap forward. Vista, by comparison, is a baby step towards modest functionality improvements.

I was present when Bill Gates showed some seminal screenshots of the compellingly-named Longhorn back in 2003 at Microsoft’s WinHEC conference in New Orleans. It looked pretty enough, but I didn’t stop to think about it that much. Four years later, I’m barely giving it a second thought. The operating system just doesn’t matter very much anymore.

I’m not being flippant, I promise you, but Vista is a clear indicator of what it means to upgrade software in this day and age. One review I came across pretty well sums it up: “There’s nothing wrong with Windows Vista.” Which is to say, there’s nothing particularly right with it either.

It’s a given that the operating system is the brain. It issues commands, it accepts instructions, it portions out memory. Beyond that, what does it do? Ideally, nothing. It should keep functioning in the face of adversity and be the bedrock upon which you can firmly place your applications.

The operating system wasn’t perfected with Windows 95 but it might as well have been. I remember my first Windows 95 PC. It cost me $2,500, which was considered a bargain at the time.

Today I can get the same functionality for $250. IBM has recognized that PCs are a throw-away commodity; Microsoft must see that Windows is taking the same path. Of course, Microsoft isn’t going to publicly admit that anytime soon, but the writing is on the wall.

Eventually, IT managers will have to introduce Vista into their shops. It could be four years from now but this non-starter will eventually . . . start. ISVs will begin to base their latest apps on the Vista kernel and the industry will sluggishly, even reluctantly, adopt a new OS.

It’s a shame that the operating system has lost its vigour, but it’s difficult to get excited about a piece of technology that hasn’t pushed its own boundaries for a decade.

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