Is MS's OS dominance under threat?

Is MS's OS dominance under threat?

During its antitrust wrangling, Microsoft maintained that it had much to fear from alternative operating systems, including the advanced but application-poor BeOS, Apple's Mac OS and the open-source-based Linux. A central tenet of Microsoft's emphasis on innovation has been that any kid in a garage could come along with software that will simply blow the company away.

The threat from Linux is real. IDC predicts that Linux as a server OS will grow by 57 per cent year on year, while NetCraft found that nearly 60 per cent of Web servers were Linux-powered, compared to around 22 per cent powered by Microsoft. IDC also estimates that Linux and its cousin, BSD, will become the number-two server platform behind Windows by 2004.

Race for the desktop

Although Linux is popular among the boffins and server crews, its impact on the desktop has been minimal. In part, this has been due to the difficulty of installation - despite the best efforts of assemblers like Red Hat, Caldera and Corel - and the misperception that "there aren't any apps".

Open-source software provides feature compatibility across applications as diverse as design (The GIMP), word processing (StarOffice) and finance management (GNUCash). Much effort has also gone into making the Linux experience friendlier through better file managers. Leading the charge was Eazel, with its Nautilus file manager. Despite all the goodwill, however, Eazel closed shop in May, citing an inability to raise further funding.

Eazel had generated excitement because of its association with respected people in the industry. Chief executive Mike Boich is an Apple alumni, joining that company in 1982, and found a niche as an evangelist for the nascent Macintosh project. Eazel's in-house "software wizard", Andy Hertzfeld, had originally joined Apple in 1979 and is credited as the author of much of the original Mac OS. It was hoped that this team could work similar magic, making Linux easy and fun to use.

Linux's lack of desktop impact can't be traced to lack of industry support. Eazel had signed a bundling deal with Dell, while both Sun and Red Hat pledged to use Nautilus as default file managers. While these deals are obviously dead, Nautilus could have an afterlife due to its GPL'd open-source code base.

Another company with a similar aim to make Linux consumer-friendly was Corel. That business had released its Linux desktop operating system in November 1999, but struggled financially during 2000. Almost a year later, Corel was acquired by Microsoft and the Linux development was shelved.

The X factor

Then there's Apple, the GUI (graphical user interface) pioneer and master of marketing to its immensely loyal customer base. OS X, released on March 24, represents nearly a decade's worth of effort by Apple to revise and rewrite its venerable OS.

During the long gestation period, several options were presented. Talk was that Apple would buy BeOS, but instead purchased NeXT, the company founded by Steve Jobs when he was forced out of Apple in a boardroom coup.

OS X freely borrows from NeXT's NeXTStep OS, using its microkernel coupled with an open-source BSD layer called Darwin. "By the end of the year, Apple will be the biggest distributor of Unix," Steve Jobs said at the OS X launch.

"No one has really been able to tame Unix yet," says Avie Tevanian, Apple's head of software. "Have you ever tried printing on Linux?"

OS X won plaudits for its elegant user interface, Aqua, which has large rounded icons, many menu options, fluid control of applications, and a turquoise colour scheme.

There's also evidence that OS X has Microsoft unnerved. In response, its Windows XP uses friendly icons and extends Apple's multi-user environment into something that's truly usable, while also incorporating much of the multimedia capability Apple has long staked out as its own.

Finally, another option outside the mainstream is BeOS, which is marketed as a digital media operating system. BeOS chairman and chief executive officer Jean Louis Gassée believes its simplicity will help BeOS gain in popularity. "Linux is a great operating system, but it's very complicated to install," he says.

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