IBM’s 360 mainframe was the first computer to gain widespread acceptance in business, and the popularity of the machine, first sold in 1965, depended as much on its software as its hardware. When IBM used Microsoft’s DOS as the operating system for its first PC, introduced in 1981, it was the first time Big Blue had gone outside its own walls for a central piece of code. Soon, technologists (including, belatedly, IBM) realized that control of the OS had given Microsoft control of the PC. IBM tried and failed to regain that control with a program called OS/2. But Microsoft triumphed with Windows in the 1990s–and became the most profitable company on earth, turning Gates into the world’s richest person. Thus, the OS came to be viewed as the ultimate technological product, a platform seemingly protean enough to incorporate and control every future software innovation and at the same time robust enough to drag outdated PC machines and programs into the present.
It couldn’t last. The main reason why control of the OS no longer guarantees technological power, of course, is the ascent of the Internet. Gates made few references to the Internet in the first edition of his book The Road Ahead, published in November 1995. Neither Windows NT nor its mass-market incarnation, Windows 95, was intimately connected to the Web. With the spread of Netscape’s browser, though, Gates began to realize that the individual PC and its operating system would have to coöperate with the public information network. By bringing a browser into the OS and thus giving it away, Microsoft recovered its momentum (and killed off a new generation of competitors). Then, preoccupied once again with control of the OS, Microsoft missed the sudden, spectacular rise of search engines. When Google’s popularity persisted, Microsoft was unable to do with the search engine what he had done with the browser.
In one sense, this failure to adapt to a networked world reflected the integrity of Gates’s vision of the PC as a tool of individual empowerment. In the mid-1970s, when the news of the first inexpensive microprocessor-based computers reached Gates at Harvard, he instantly understood the implications. Until then, computers had been instruments of organizations and agents of bureaucratization. The PC brought about a revolution, offering the little guy a chance to harness computing power for his personal ends.
Technology is now moving away from the individualistic and toward the communal–toward the “cloud” (see our Briefing on cloud computing, July/August 2009). Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software architect, who has been the most influential engineer at the company since Gates retired from executive management, describes the process under way as a return to the computing experience of his youth, in the 1970s, when folks shared time on computers and the network reigned supreme. Cloud technologies “have happened before,” he said in June. “In essence, this pendulum is swinging.” Similarly, Schmidt recalls how, in the early 1980s, Sun Microsystems’ OS was developed for a computer that lacked local storage.
The return to the network has big implications for the business of operating systems. Computer networks used to be closed, private: in the 1960s and ’70s they revolved around IBM mainframe operating systems and, later, linked Windows machines on desktops and in back rooms. Today’s computer networks are more like public utilities, akin to the electricity and telephone systems. The operating system is less important. Why does Google want to build one?