Does the Mac-Windows-Linux Race Ever Change?

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I’ve been on a history kick lately, inspired by the fact that the foundation of the Unix operating system was created just 40 years ago this summer, starting with software written by Ken Thompson at Bell Laboratories. He wrote an OS, a shell, an editor, and an assembler all in just one month, in assembly language, to run a DEC PDP-7 minicomputer.

The outcome of that work changed the future course of digital history. From that original foundation ,which he called Unics, enlarged and modified time and again, sprang Minix, Linux, Mac OS X, BSD, and Solaris, together with corresponding server OS’s and a raft of short-lived but briefly popular variants.

Scanning through some of the Unix entries on Wikipedia, I came across a fascinating essay written ten years ago by Neal Stephenson, the real award-winning science fiction author behind the pen name Stephen Bury. It’s titled “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” but in addition to its core message it is a concise sociological assessment of the state of the Microsoft-Apple-Linux balance in that epoch.

In Stephenson’s signature prose – a rich mix of humor, scholarship, and insight – he zeroes in on the cultural forces which, even more powerfully than technical merit and aggressive advertising, have created the relative market share of the Three Great Systems.

(You can read a full copy of the long essay online at his website.)

What struck me more than anything else was the degree to which the current situation matches that of a decade ago. Ten years is an eternity in the digital world, yet that paper written in January 1999 describes triumphs and shortfalls of the three systems that are eerily similar to the ones endlessly argued and extolled on blogs today.

He describes the positive feedback Microsoft’s dominant position creates in persuading coders to write applications for Windows PCs (currently referred to as the Microsoft Tax), and the premium price of the only hardware that will run Mac (see the latest PC – MAC ads), as well as the Linux Is For Geeks perception (even now scarcely beginning to erode).

All of this could persuade me that the major players are locked into some crazy Red Queen’s race in which the technology streaks ahead at blinding speed yet leaves the runners in the same place.

And that’s almost exactly what Stephenson said ten years ago: that it is the human reaction to technology, not the mechanical-electronic-digital miracles it can work, that determines what will barely succeed, what will fail outright, and what will decisively triumph.

Human attitudes change on a more leisurely timescale than technology does, so the natural frequency of the market feedback loop is very little different now than it was in the days when telephones and electricity and cars and television first came into being.

Reading Stephenson’s paper was a sobering experience – though some of his comments are laugh-out-loud humorous – because I can’t look at my monitor anymore without a nagging suspicion that, rich as the experience is, there could be much more there of real value if a lot more people would support it.

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