Editorial

A world without Windows

“A world without walls” is a statement used in numerous campaigns and marketing pushes by organisations and companies across the globe. But what if we lived in a world without Windows? There are numerous postings and blogs about how ‘Linux owns’ (old site), or detailing the apocalyptic vision of computing if Microsoft ceased to exist, but I want to focus on the market and how ‘the big three’ offer consumers the best choice of hardware and software in decades!

It is the recent Patent Wars between Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, HTC and maybe even Nokia that prompted me to think about how ‘the big three’ - Microsoft, Apple and Google - operate and survive. Yes, the current legal battles are based in and around the mobile device market, but it got me thinking more about the services and solutions that all three provide. Something has to give, and eventually it will, but what that is or who it most affects is yet to be seen.

The main thing or at least one of the main things, that all three offers is an OS. The OS may only paint part of the picture for each, with other software and hardware produced, but would they design and develop that hardware or software without the OS?

A World without Windows

So, what about the OS market at the moment? Windows controls over 90% of the desktop market share. But what if Microsoft hadn’t moved in the OS world and released Windows? What would we be using now? The answer to this one could be complicated, and everyone will have their own opinion. My personal opinion is that Apple’s OS would have been the consumer operating system of the current age. Whether or not we would have OS X in its Mountain Lion colours is something that can only be speculated, but at least there’s a good chance that Apple might have been the Microsoft of today, with 90%+ of the world’s desktop operating systems to call their own.


Steve Jobs (L) and Bill Gates (R). They knew they needed each other deep down

But why Apple? Well, they beat Microsoft to the graphical user interface (GUI) with their System OS in 1984 and Linus Torvolds didn’t start Linux development until the very early 90’s. It’s no secret that Apple legally challenged Microsoft once Windows 2.03 and later 3.0 started to take inspiration from their OS. Microsoft did the right thing in licensing patents from Apple for Windows 1.0, but when they started to progress towards Apple’s desktop ‘look and feel’ they went to court. Microsoft won, with 179 patents being already licensed by Microsoft and a further 10 deemed not copyrightable. Either way, this was a turning point for Microsoft. Once appeals and formalities had been completed in 1997, Microsoft and Apple entered into a patent cross-licensing agreement that still stands to this day.

The Alternatives

I don’t want to spend too long talking about Windows and its history, but let me just say a number; 86. That is the minimum number of editions of Windows, from 1.0 right up to Server 2012 that Microsoft have released since 1985. And that doesn’t count SP releases, the Server R2 editions, CE, Mobile or Phone OS’. So in fact, that 86 could easily pass the 100, 110 or even 120 figures with ease.

With the introduction of Windows 8, Microsoft is moving into old, familiar territory. When Windows 95 was released, the interface changed how computing was perceived. Steve Ballmer himself said in his keynote speech at BUILD on Tuesday that the release of Windows 95 “which was really the thing that brought computing into the mainstream.” I couldn’t agree more. Microsoft even got two of the biggest celebrities at the time, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry, in on the promo material and market push. Now, 17 years later, Microsoft has radically changed the interface that’s been established since Windows 95 and making it more relevant for today’s hardware and interface capabilities. Windows 95, helped make computers cool (or maybe I should say relevant) for the average consumer, but the interface has only been evolving over the past 17 years. So to be truly revolutionary, Microsoft is changing the game again with Windows 8’s ‘Marmite’ UI.

So, you don’t like Windows 8, but what is out there that could (and for some users already has) replace Windows? Well, it all depends on what you do with your current Windows PC. Are you a gamer, developer, casual internet surfer, system admin, edit audio or video?

Let’s start with the blazingly obvious, Apple’s OS X

OS X

In 1984, Apple beat Microsoft to the GUI with the release of System 1.0.They successfully made the GUI and the desktop metaphor popular. The initial 1.0 release was limited to only running one application at a time (although special application shell workarounds were available and worked to a certain degree) and used the flat Macintosh File System (MFS).

1991’s release of System 7 was a major release for Apple. A revamped UI, new software and the eventual transition to the PowerPC platform brought Mac OS right in line with Windows 3.x, in terms of functionality. Microsoft Office applications had been available for Mac OS as early as System 1.0, but the Office suite became available in 1989. Office 98 arrived on the Mac in 1998 and Apple and Microsoft entered into a five year agreement to bundle Internet Explorer as the Internet browser for the OS. Was System 7 the first true alternative to the Windows OS?

Following a quick name change to Mac OS for versions 7.6, 8 and 9, OS X arrived in the form of 10.0 (or Cheetah) in 2001. Now up to 10.8 (or Mountain Lion) with the PowerPC architecture traded for Intel hardware, There aren’t many tasks that a Windows based PC can do over a Mac.


Word on OS X

Applications such as Word, Excel, Firefox, Photoshop and iTunes are available for both Windows and OS X. Applications such as Outlook, Access and Windows Media Center have Apple equivalents in Entourage, Filemaker Pro and EyeTV. Gamers have access to Steam, which they are able to play Games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Diablo III and World of Warcraft are also available for the OS.


OS X running on a Dell netbook, a prime example of a Hackintosh

The only problem OS X has over a Windows based PC is that you pretty much need to own a Mac, or Mac hardware to be able to install and run the OS. And buying any Apple hardware isn’t light on the wallet, in comparison to Windows based PCs. If you want, you could go down the route of OSx86, a version of OS X that has been modified to run on more than just Mac hardware. In theory, you could build a ‘Hackintosh’ and install one of the many builds of OS X that have been tweaked, but the legalities of this are obvious, unless you buy the OS media and work out how to force it onto your hardware.

Linux

Linux was born out of the UNIX operating system by Linus Torvolds, who started development on the kernel in 1991. The open source OS is developed by thousands of developers all over the world. Because it’s free, there are many different versions (or derivatives) of the operating system falling under the main Debian, Gentoo, Ubuntu and RPM (among others) OS banner. Even Neowin has had its own version of the OS, based on Debian and Ubuntu, called Shift Linux. While our forum section for the OS hasn’t been updated in over 3 years and DistroWatch.com lists the OS as discontinued, it shows how accessible Linux has become.


Shift Linux from Neowin

So how do you decide what version or build to choose? At the moment, Ubuntu seems to be the most accessible for consumers. There are different derivatives, both official and 3rd party, but again, it depends what you want to do that will dictate whether or not you could or should switch from Windows to Linux. The standard, official, desktop version should be more than enough for the majority of users.


An Ubuntu desktop

But what holds Linux back? I remember a time, where each year was going to be “Linux’s year”, but it never came to pass and each year will always be Linux’s year. The real division between what Windows is and what any of the Linux derivatives is the lack of commercial applications and games. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be productive, it’s all a matter of choice. Microsoft Office has its equivalent in Open Office, Firefox comes bundled with the majority of distros, GIMP is a worthy equivalent to Photoshop and Thunderbird is to Linux as what Outlook is to Windows. And the real beauty about the OS and the software I’ve mentioned? It won’t cost you a penny.


Open Office on Ubuntu

Gaming is hit and miss. Doom 3, Prey and Serious Sam II are some of the more notable games that can be played on the OS. You’ll not find your Half-Life’s or Counter-Strike’s available just yet, although a Steam Linux client is in the pipeline.

Mobile: iOS, Android, Blackberry OS, Windows Phone and Windows RT

Don’t laugh, but the advances in mobile hardware and software could make an iPad, a Samsung Galaxy Tab or even a Windows Phone a serious contender for a PC replacement. Again, it all depends on what you’re using a PC for. Internet, email, downloading and streaming music and video, social networking, light gaming and office applications are all available thanks to each platform having thousands of native and third party apps available through their stores.

 

iOS

Android

Blackberry OS

Windows Phone

Windows RT

Productivity

iWork, Microsoft Office 2013*, Microsoft Office Web Apps, Office2HD

Google Docs, Documents 2 Go, Office Suite Pro, Microsoft Office 2013*, Microsoft Office Web Apps,

Documents 2 Go, Nice Office, GDocs, Smart Office 2, Microsoft Office Web Apps

Microsoft Office 2010 (WP7) & 2013 (WP8)

Microsoft Office RT 2013

Audio/Video

iTunes + 3rd Party Apps

Google Play + 3rd Party Apps

Native media players + 3rd Party Apps

Xbox Music & Videos + 3rd Party Apps

Xbox Music & Videos + 3rd Party Apps

Games

3rd Party Titles

3rd Party Titles

3rd Party Titles

Xbox Live + 3rd Party Titles

Xbox Live + 3rd Party Titles

Internet

Safari, Chrome, Opera Mini, Dolphin, Atomic

Chrome, Opera Mini, Firefox, Dolphin Browser HD/Mini, Boat Browser

Browser, Opera Mini, Bolt

IE9 (WP7), IE10 (WP8), UC Browser, Surfcude 3D Browser

IE10

Social

Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Flickr, Instagram

Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Flickr, Instagram

Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin

Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Flickr

Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Flickr

* Microsoft Office 2013 has reportedly been confirmed for a release in March 2013

It might not be the best representation or comparison for each platform, and with Windows RT still being a newish OS, it’s still a long way from being a comprehensive one. But what it does do, is show just how diverse and well established iOS and Android are. Windows Phone is close, but still needs the time to match the sheer number of apps that iOS and Android can provide.


Google Docs on Android

I also didn’t want to highlight any one type of app. Yes, the productivity section lists office apps for word processing, spread sheets, etc and not much else. But that’s what the average would use as a productive application. While it is possible to get Photoshop on iOS and Android, serious post processing junkies are not going to replace a desktop or laptop for a tablet. The same can be said for gamers. They won’t be able to enjoy the same experience playing the few games that are available between the PC and the mobile device, so won’t even consider trading the desktop for a mobile device.


Photoshop on iOS

The main draw for mobile devices is mobile internet, audio and video on the go, access to the social networks from anywhere you can get an internet connection (Wi-Fi or carrier internet) and light, casual gaming. This is why tablets and smartphones are selling well, but users are more likely to purchase one to compliment the desktop or laptop they have, rather than replace it.

Interoperability is key

I guess the big draw for anyone wishing to switch to a new platform is the possibility that a file (or folder) or application can be accessed or run across any platform. OS X, Linux, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows Phone and Windows RT all provide a web browser, the one basic piece of software required to access the one universal resource we have – the internet. From here you have access to software and services that most of us probably take for granted.

Cloud computing (a fun term, believe me), in its simplest form, means you’re using a computing device to access another remote computing device (server/storage) via a common interface, probably a web interface. From there, your applications, desktops or files will be accessible where you have internet connectivity. It’s nothing new either, with webmail being the main form of utilising the cloud that users might not immediately identify with. So from using Hotmail or Gmail, saving files to SkyDrive or iCloud, using Office 365 or Google Docs, and accessing applications or desktops via Citrix or Terminal Services we live in a world where it’s possible to have access to what you need whenever you need it. Hell, you don’t even need to own the software or the computer that it runs on!

And what of the desktop software available to us? Software houses build support for a number of non-proprietary file formats into their software, giving the end user the choice on what software they wish to use. So for people that can’t afford Photoshop, they might download and use GIMP. Not everyone can afford Microsoft Office suites, so they could turn to Open Office. Each piece of software will have its pros and cons; but ultimately if as a user, you are confident that you can leverage whatever piece of software you choose and make it fit your purposes, it shouldn’t matter what that product is. And the fact that the proprietary file formats will, in most cases, open in any non-native application is a massive plus for everyone.

Apple and Google already do it and Microsoft has said they see themselves becoming more of a service and hardware provider; although they’ve been providing Hotmail (now Outlook.com) and Live services for years. Rather than buying into a product that you own, you’re subscribing to an idea and a methodology that will allow you to do the same thing, without worrying about patches or updates, bugs or errors, installing software - everything should just work. Well, that’s the idea anyway.

But what about familiarity

As I’ve already mentioned, Windows 8 is the OS that changes the game again for Microsoft, much like how Windows 95 moved away from the Windows 3.11 interface. I first used Windows 8 at the Developer Preview Stage; to be honest, I didn’t like it. I thought the UI was gorgeous, and familiar, as I’d been using Windows Phone 7 from November 2010. But I used it on a laptop and the touchpad just wasn’t practical for navigating the interface. On the release of the RC, I decided to try it again, this time on an old desktop PC. My experience was nothing but positive. Now, I’m now using it as my primary OS on my main PC at home and I dual boot my work laptop with Windows 7 and 8. With my work laptop due to be replaced, I am thinking of asking for a Surface Pro.

It’s a fair point that businesses are reportedly going to skip Windows 8. They’ve maybe only just migrated to Windows 7 from XP and can’t afford the costs associated with another migration in such a short space of time. I’ve got to see many businesses across a number of industries and they all use a mixture of Windows XP and Windows 7. With the major change in UI for Windows 8, most of these businesses won’t see the benefit of the Start Screen or the touch-centric design as they are happy with what Windows 7 brings. In addition, few users will have a tablet to see how good Windows 8 can be. Desktop users will most likely need training or guidance in navigating the UI to open files, applications or change settings; it will be a culture shock for a lot of people.


The unification of Microsoft's Modern UI

But Microsoft is doing this in an effort to unify their main product lines; Windows, Windows Phone and the Xbox. The idea here is the interface is common between them all and you will eventually be able to switch between devices to perform (nearly) all the same tasks. Apple is now doing the same, introducing Launchpad in Lion to give the OS a very iOS look and feel. For Google, there is still a division in the look and feel of Android and Chrome OS, but I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time before both OSes start to share a more common interface.


Launchpad on OS X Lion

At least with cloud services, you can to a point still enjoy the familiar desktop or application experience you’ve become accustomed to.

Where do we go from here

I’m going to borrow a diagram from health and safety, the fire triangle. The fire triangle represents the three elements (heat, fuel and oxygen) you need to start a fire. Take one away, the fire will go out. For the triangle to survive, all three elements must be present and available.

I want to apply this to Apple, Google and Microsoft. They are the elements and the fire is the users. Yes, the fire could easily be the product catalogue, but that’s not what is important to these companies. A huge catalogue of products is nice, but ultimately the users are the people that have to be fired up by the company or the services it provides. People love Microsoft for their software solutions and for their hardware (Surface, keyboard, mice, and webcams). People love Google for its online services and Android OS. People love Apple for their hardware aesthetics, their OS’ and their mobile devices. There will be certain consumers that mix and match products, while others will stay exclusive to a company. Either way there is an incredible following for each company.

But take one of them out of the picture, what happens? The users suffer. Okay, we won’t die like a fire would, but our choices would suffer. There are benefits to a smaller product catalogue; higher quality hardware and software for a start. Less choice, but with similar or equal products from each side of the triangle, the consumer still has the same level of choice across a range of budgets for the same quality of product. Just look at the Nexus 7 from Google and the iPad Mini from Apple; or the “New iPad” and Microsoft’s Surface. Comparisons will always be made, but with the consumer having the final say, giving the consumer a headache when it comes to product selection, between high quality products, can only be a positive thing.

If something catastrophic happened and one of Apple, Google or Microsoft disappeared, what would happen to the other two? Would they be redundant without the third side of the triangle? Of course not, it would be ridiculous to think they would. Can you imagine the bidding war(s) that would begin over any of their intellectual properties (IPs) alone?!

I think when it comes down to it, for all the legal shenanigans, Apple, Google and Microsoft all need each other to survive. They push each other technically, bringing innovation to the forefront to better their products; all in an effort to compete with each other. But as we’ve seen, they each license certain IPs from each other for their own products; taking one of them away would simply be an inconvenience. So maybe they all have a bond, a mutual respect, and that no matter what is sounded out from each camp they continue to help each other help the consumer.

In reality though, it’s not about an alternative to Windows or Microsoft, but alternatives and choice in general. While there will be users who stick to one platform (for familiarity, out of fear of change or they’re fans), there will be users who are prepared to experiment and try new ways of getting things done. There will also be the user who moves between multiple platforms at work and at home because they either have to or want to.

Whichever category you fall into, once in a while, just take stock of the alternatives around you as no matter how good you think something is, there will always be something that claims to be better. And sometimes is.

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