A respected PC industry innovator has made his opinion clear: “The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago.”
That judgment was delivered in 1996 by a fellow named Steve Jobs—whos still involved in the business, I believe, at a company that some would call one of Microsofts most significant competitors. Does the long-awaited arrival of Microsofts Windows Vista prove Jobs 10-year-old assessment right or wrong?
When Jobs offered his concession, it was after 12 years of Apple Computer leadership in both concepts and technologies. The original Macintosh, Jobs would later assert in 1998, reflected the insight that “A lot of times, people dont know what they want until you show it to them.” That Mac came out of its beige shoulder bag (I still have mine) with tools for writing, drawing and connecting rather than with previous PCs tools for programming. It was an existence proof of the information appliance, before wed gotten around to propounding the theorem that one might ever be.
We now see Microsoft defining the proposition of Vista from multiple perspectives. The Vista “experience,” according to Microsoft, combines power and delight in digital memories and entertainment at home with personal productivity at work—long-standing Apple strong points.
Microsofts Vista campaign also stresses manageability and security, which have not been distinctive Apple claims—perhaps because the Mac has never made those areas seem like major challenges. You unpacked the Mac, plugged it in to the network—every Mac has had network capability—and that was that. Whats to manage? And with Apples OS X setting up new users with a limited-privilege everyday account as their default mode of operation for several years now—unlike any version of Windows before Vista—the Mac users question may well be, whats to secure? Is Vista a triumph over difficulties that never needed to exist?
Vista inspires a stroll through the museum of ironic historical parallels. Consider the current situation: PC builders dread the discovery of what Vistas late delivery will do to their holiday sales, but most of them probably dont consider it an option to offer their users something else as an alternative—even though “bell cow users” (those who propel the mass markets taste) are more than a little leery of Vistas steps toward content lockdown at the behest of major content producers. Its not a pretty sight.
Thirty years ago, a company called MITS wanted to bring its Altair 8800 computer kit to market, but it needed a version of BASIC to attract the hobbyist programmer. A little company called Micro-Soft called MITS to offer a demo of its Altair BASIC. MITS was delighted, not knowing that the offered BASIC was not only as yet unfinished, its development had not even begun.
When Altair BASIC did arrive, written and demod in the subsequent eight weeks, it became a critical component of MITSs offering—so much so that MITS execs had to suffer in silence when Bill Gates published an anti-piracy letter to computer hobbyists, explicitly naming the Altair user community and charging that “most of you steal your software.”
Thirty years ago, to put it plainly, a company given to premature promises of software capability explicitly accused its hardware partners customers of being unethical abusers of digital content—but had neither the technology nor the clout to do anything about it. The last clause sums up whats now changed.
So, has Microsoft won? Measured by market share and money, certainly. Measured by whose vision of personal computing in 1984 looks more like the reality of today, clearly not.
If our standard of measure, however, is the power to create and control the lightning in the bottle of what the PC can be, then the question of who has won is immaterial—because the user has settled for a definition of success that conceals a far more fundamental loss.
Remember the personal computer? So do I—and I miss it.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.