One GUI to Rule Them All

 
 
By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2005-11-13 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Opinion: Microsoft's dominant position robs PC users of innovation in the end-user experience.

Were looking back this week at 20 years of Microsoft Windows, and along that timeline theres much to admire. Id fall short of my duty to eWEEK readers, though, if I didnt make it clear that you didnt get all that you had coming to you.

PC users have demonstrably been robbed, not to mince words, of almost 10 years worth of the innovation in the end-user experience that many PC ecosystem players would have been striving to deliver if Microsoft hadnt told them not to bother—or else.

We need not praise the dubious origins and unimpressive results of the Microsoft antitrust litigation of 1998 through 2004, but theres one passage of the Findings of Fact in that case that deserves to be remembered.
That document offers hard data, provided by Hewlett-Packard, measuring the consequences to both users and vendors of monopoly power in the PC marketplace.

It really began in the spring of 1996, when Microsoft started dictating the precise startup behavior and desktop appearance of Windows.

The Findings of Fact enumerates five constraints that Microsoft imposed on PC vendors. The most important was that "Microsoft prohibited OEMs from installing programs, including alternatives to the Windows desktop user interface, which would launch automatically upon completion of the initial Windows boot sequence." HP, which had built its own visual shell for Windows, objected.

Click here to read an overview of Windows first 20 years. "Emblematic of the reaction among large OEMs," the record continues, "was a letter that the manager of research and development at Hewlett-Packard sent to Microsoft in March 1997. He wrote: Microsofts mandated removal of all OEM boot-sequence and auto-start programs for OEM licensed systems has resulted in significant and costly problems. ... [O]ur system return rate has increased from the lowest of any OEM (even lower than Apple) to a level comparable to the other Microsoft OEM PC vendors."

Thats about the biggest and most costly experiment thats ever been conducted, I suspect, in the transformation of a marketplace from innovative differentiation to enforced commoditization. Windows could have been the foundation of an industry-standard marketplace in which applications written for any Windows-capable machine would have run without modification on all such machines, but PC builders could still have competed on their ability to devise the most approachable and productive environment in which to access those applications and orchestrate ones work.

Those hardware makers, many with decades of experience in creating end-user integration environments, were prevented from doing that. The court found that "the OEMs obeyed the restrictions because they perceived no alternative to licensing Windows for pre-installation on their PCs." That kowtowing by PC makers to the market power of Windows was the moment when the PC industry shut itself into a beige box of Wintel homogeneity. As Jim Rapozas column in this issue points out (Page 54), not much has happened since.

Read eWEEK Labs wish list for Windows at 20 here. Think about what we might have seen in the past nine years. We might have seen user interfaces based on personal timelines; we might have had on-screen desktops that automatically associated files with one another based on content or on e-mail traffic analysis suggesting project or team relationships. These ideas have been explored by various research groups, but the view of computing that most users would see has been imposed by just one company.

Were there benefits to users from the ability to sit down at any Windows machine and see a familiar environment? Yes, that seems inarguable, but a certain degree of turbulence and discomfort is part of any journey worth the effort of making at all. Weve invested effort in the past to make useful transitions. We shouldnt be afraid to do so again—and we should always have the chance.

Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com. To read reader response to this article, click here. Check out eWEEK.coms for Microsoft and Windows news, views and analysis. To read more Peter Coffee, subscribe to eWEEK magazine.
 
 
 
 
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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