Windows Beat Unix, But It Wont Beat Linux

Opinion: Here's why the boys from Redmond aren't going to be able to pull it off.

Twelve years ago, I oversaw a PC Magazine feature on Unix on Intel. My team and I reviewed at Unixes from Consensys, Dell, Interactive, SCO, Univel, Sun, and NeXT.

We also looked at, but didnt review, Unixes from UHC, Microport and other companies most of you have never heard of.

Today, most of those companies are dead. Only two of them—Sun and SCO—are still in the Unix business.

So what happened?

It wasnt that Windows was better than Unix. You can argue that today, but in 1993, Unixs competition, if you can call it that, was Windows 3.1 and NT 3.1.

NT, in particular, at that point, was a bad joke of a server operating system.

Now, there are many reasons why Windows won out over Unix. Not least of which was that Microsoft made darn sure that hardware and software vendors either played ball with Microsoft or they didnt get competitive access to Windows or Microsoft Office.

But, as important as Microsofts under-handed business dealings were to its success, Microsoft didnt have to cheat to win. The Unix companies were doing a great job of killing themselves off.

You see, while there were many attempts to create software development standards for Unix they were too general to do much good—POSIX (Portable Operating System Interface)—or they became mired in the business consortium fights between the Open Systems Foundation and Unix International, which became known as the Unix wars.

While the Unix companies were busy ripping each other to shreds, Microsoft was smiling all the way to the bank.

Because the Unix businesses couldnt settle on software development standards, ISVs (independent software vendors) had to write not a single application to get the whole Unix market, they had to write up to a half-dozen different versions.

Which would you rather do? Write a single application that would run on all Windows systems, or six different ones, each with its own unique quality assurance and support problems?

The amazing thing isnt that Windows beat the pants off Unix; its that so many of the Unix companies survived until today.

Linux came into the field though with two big advantages over the Unixes. The first was that it was open-source.

In the meritocracy of open-source development, the good code survives and the bad code dies.

The second advantage was it had Linus Torvalds.

There are other open-source Unix operating systems: the BSDs.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the BSD operating systems.

None of them, though, have had even a fraction of Linuxs success.

Because Torvalds is the single leader of Linux, it has avoided the old Unix trap of in-fighting, which continues to bedevil the BSDs.

If all Linux had was Torvalds, Id worry about the operating systems future. Linus is a wonderful person and a great programmer, but if thats all there was to Linuxs success, wed be one bad car accident away from its end.

Instead, many of the Linux distributors have learned their Unix history lessons.

Theyve realized that it takes more than open-source; it takes open-standards to make a successful open operating system.

Thats why the LSB (Linux Standard Base) 3.0 release is so important.

/zimages/2/28571.gifRead more here about the Linux Standard Base, Version 3.0.

This is not just another standard. This is the standard that will make sure that ISVs can write programs for one Linux rather than half-a-dozen Linux distributions.

All the major Linux consortiums and companies— Asianux, the Debian Common Core Alliance, Red Hat and Novell—have agreed to make their distributions LSB 3.0 compliant.

With this move, Linux has assured itself of a future no matter what Microsoft does.

As someone who suffered through the Unix wars, I cant tell you how pleased I am with this development.

Bring it on, Microsoft. Linux is ready for you. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at

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