Why Linux should thank Microsoft and why the future is dark

Posted by on Nov 10, 2015 in KDE, ownCloud, politics, privacy | 18 Comments

People in my generation are used to the fact that you can install a new operating system on any computer. But if you look back in the history of computing and look forward towards the future you realize that this is the exception and not the rule.

For a long time hardware and software, at least the operating system part, were sold and used together. The software is already installed on the hardware when you buy it from the manufacturers and can’t easily be replaced because it is tied very closely together. The only exception is the personal computer between the mid 80s until now. When you look at all other computing platforms you see that this is a very unusual exception. Hardware and software are tied very closely together in everything from embedded to mainframes to mobile devices like your iPhone or Android phone.

This was the case for all the computers before the IBM PC. Examples are the early mini computer and mainframes like the IBM 360 and 370 series. It was basically impossible to replace the operating system.

Then in the 70s the first home computers or personal computers showed up. Examples are the Commodore PET, the Apple II and the first Tandy. Later in the 80s we had the Atari, the Commodore C64, ZX Spectrum, the Macintosh, a bunch of Unix workstations and the Amiga. All of them shipped with an operating system that was basically irreplaceable by normal users. Sometimes technically possible not practical for normal users.

Let’s look at current and future computing platforms. Today we have mobile phones, PDAs and tablets, Smart TVs, smart watches, cars and a ton of other computer platforms where hardware and software are closely tied together. Today it is even harder to install different operating systems thanks to the wonders of DRM and locked down boot-loaders.

The only computing platform where we have a lively market of alternative operating systems is the IBM compatible personal computer space. Here we can choose from a ton of different commercial and free Linux distributions, we had players like OS/2 and different flavors of DOS from different vendors and Microsoft selling Windows in boxes independent from the hardware. This open platform made it possible for the free software community and the Linux vendors to develop a market of alternative operating systems.

So why is the PC different? There are no real form-factor or hardware or software or technical reasons. It is theoretically possible to replace the OS on all the other platforms if the hardware manufacturer would support it. Admittedly, in the world of special purpose super computing hardware it is the norm. And I’m sure someone will send me a message and pointing out how this could be done by a very experienced hacker. But  the fact is that this will never be mainstream. On all these platforms the hardware and the software are tied closely together. There are no technical reasons. The only reason is that the market developed differently. So why is that?

Let’s look a bit into the history books.

IBM was late in the personal computer game. They concentrated too long on their old cash cows, the big-iron mainframes they sold to large companies. In the late 70s and early 80s they realized their mistake because the personal computer market exploded. To become a serious player in this new, lucrative market they had to launch a personal computer fast. This meant the usual approach to develop everything internally was no longer an option–it would have been too slow. Instead, they decided to build and launch the IBM PC out of off the shelf components. They used an Intel processor, a bunch of other standard chips and components and they licensed DOS from Microsoft. But the IBM and Microsoft deal contained something very unusual. The option for Microsoft to license DOS to other hardware vendors too. For the first time it became possible for other vendors to build a compatible PC mainly by licensing the same operating system from Microsoft that was also running on IBM machines. IBM had inadvertently created a ‘standard’, the IBM compatible PC. And for the first time a computer was not one product but two. A hardware component and an operating system part that users could buy independently.

Only because of that it was realistic that a community of free software developers could write an OS and real users could actually install and use it.

Let’s imagine a future where IBM would have bought MS in the early 80s instead of licensing DOS. Or negotiated an exclusive licensing deal with MS. In this case the whole IBM compatible PC market would have never happened. And the option for an open source and free software ecosystem on PC and server would have never happened. In the late 80s IBM tried to move to a closed platform with the PS/2 series but failed. The cat was already out of the bag.

In all other areas beside the IBM compatible PC space we see closed platforms again. You can’t easily replace to the operating systems on your TV, Smart Watch, car, phone, tablet and so on. You can’t buy alternative operating system for this platforms.

So it is an interesting twist of history that the free software revolution was only possible because Microsoft created this open ecosystem and decoupled the hardware business from the software business.

The niche of an hardware independent operating system for some of these new platforms is now occupied by Android. Google is doing a great job by making Android open enough that a lot of people praise it as open and cool. But, both due to the way Google handles the ecosystem and due to its licensing, third-party manufacturers can use Android to create new devices but at the same time keep the system closed and locked down enough keep Google in control and allow them to use it to push their cloud services. Additional to the classic lock-in between hardware and software like DRM, closed drivers and pre-installs we now have lock-in through deep integration of cloud services. This is pretty well explained in this blog post at arstechnica

The big question now is: what does this mean for free software, new free software contributors and the overall freedom of the new computing platforms? It’s hard to see how a potential new completely free software project could conquer these new closed platforms. What is needed is a really good go-to-market strategy which makes it possible for the mainstream users to install and use these new alternative software on their devices. Without this it is hard to see how this can ever attract a bigger user base and a relevant contributor community.

This is a hard nut to crack and a real challenge for free software. It will require more than heads-down-and-code. What is certain is that we can’t rely on an open ecosystem anymore because it is possible that the personal computer was an exception and the last one!

18 Comments

  1. Fester Bestertester
    10/11/2015

    There was a brief glimmer of possibility in the early Sony PS3. I can recall being able to install linux on one (IIRC it was Mandriva), and it ran well. Then an update (probably done in the background) clobbered it. With no backup of the OS (it wasn’t my machine) and probably no ‘raw boot’ loader to revert, that door was slammed. The PS4 has been locked from the outset.

    Reply
  2. Luis
    10/11/2015

    Hey, Frank. Nice article.

    I’ve done this kind of talking for a long time, since I’d realized that we just can’t buy any ARM based computer and install a standard GNU/Linux (or BSD, or whatever) distro on it. Even when this is possible (a few developer boards and fewer smartphone models), you have to get an exact compiled-for specialized version of the distro. The situation really sucks.

    What’s difficult to grasp is why the hardware guys are really missing the point. They would sell a lot more and under cheaper costs if they made their stuff free and open source software compatible. The community would help them out for free.

    Maybe this kind of option could gain the hearts of the community: http://lowrisc.org

    Cheers

    Reply
  3. Links 10/11/2015: International Space Station Uses GNU/Linux, TensorFlow Liberated | Techrights
    10/11/2015

    […] Why Linux should thank Microsoft and why the future is dark […]

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  4. Lionel Chauvin
    11/11/2015

    Linux should thank Compaq for having reverse-engineer the IBM Bios.

    I do not see where Microsoft has played a role in the ability to install Linux on compatible PCs and why we should thank them.

    That was the bios that allows IBM to sell their PC with different OS (CP/M or PC-DOS).

    Reply
    • Frank Karlitschek
      12/11/2015

      I agree that Compaq played an important role. For example ther created the first 386 32Bit PC. Even before IBM.
      But there wouldn’t be an Compaq PC in the first place if they coudn’t have licensed DOS from Microsoft. Only because of that it was possible to sell IBM compatible PCs.
      Without Microsoft insisting on selling DOS separately there would have be not market for Compaq. And because of that also no free BIOS

      Reply
      • Lionel Chauvin
        14/11/2015

        “But there wouldn’t be an Compaq PC in the first place if they coudn’t have licensed DOS from Microsoft.”

        What the point to by the licence of an OS that you can’t run on your hardware ?

        Reply
        • Lionel Chauvin
          14/11/2015

          buy*

          Reply
  5. Maxi
    11/11/2015

    Really find this piece interesting. You didn’t mentioned it specifically but UEFI Secure Boot is currently one of the biggest threats for free software on PCs. Windows 10’s certification program no longer demands the OEMs to let users deactivate the feature or to let them use custom keys.
    But there is an aspect that we western people quickly overlook: It’s China and their anti-US/-Microsoft policy and strong support of Linux. Maybe the situation isn’t that bad.

    Reply
  6. Vladislav Rastrusnyy
    12/11/2015

    Nice article, but your font size is really uncomfortable to read. It’s so small, my eyes hurt.

    Reply
  7. Garance Drosehn
    12/11/2015

    This perhaps overlooks some history. There were non-IBM operating systems which ran on IBM and IBM-compatible (Amdahl) mainframes. My college ran one called the Michigan Terminal System (MTS), as did a handful of other colleges.

    There were also operating systems on other hardware platforms. In the late 1970’s, one of my friends in college was selling an operating system for some kind of mini-computer or another. I have a vague memory that it might have been something from HP. But in any case, he wrote a simple OS, put advertisements in the backs of computer magazines, and got customers. He kept improving on his OS for those customers while he was in college. There were also people running their own OS’s on DEC hardware (PDP’s). All of this before IBM released their first PC.

    And from the history of Unix entry in Wikipedia: “the Unix operating system was conceived and implemented by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie (both of AT&T Bell Laboratories) in 1969 and first released in 1970. Later they rewrote it in a new programming language, C, to make it portable.”. And later: “Another free operating system project, initially released in 1977, was the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD). This was developed by UC Berkeley from the 6th edition of Unix from AT&T.”

    Linux is a varient of Unix, and Unix was already multi-platform before IBM and Microsoft combined to create that first IBM PC.

    I’d also suggest that the big advantage you refer to was not because of Microsoft’s unique license with IBM which let them sell the same OS to other companies, it was that Intel was willing to document how their chips worked so that anyone could come along and write their own OS. And if not Intel, then Motorola with their CPU’s. There were a lot of companies writing their own little OS’s in the 1980’s, and none of them were asking IBM or Microsoft for permission.

    Your article assumes that if IBM had a lock on Microsoft’s operating system, then everything would have happened exactly the way it did *except* that IBM would own it all. An alternate view would be that everything happened the way it did *BECAUSE* Microsoft could sell the same OS to other companies. And then those hardware companies beat each other to death trying to bring their hardware prices down, and those lower prices attracted more customers to Microsoft’s OS as compared to all the other options.

    Reply
  8. Artyom
    13/11/2015

    Nice article. And as Maxi pointed out above, UEFI makes the problem even worse.
    On the other hand I think IBM and other industry leaders played much more important role than MS. For instance, you mentioned ZX Spectrum. It was pretty much open and standardized. I saw at least 8 independent clones of it, and yet it was not picked up by the industry.
    MS also tried to standardize another z80 based computer: MSX and MSX-2. But it wasn’t so successful as IBM. Maybe 8 bit was just not enough.

    Reply
  9. asanchezs
    13/11/2015

    There is a missing point. When the IBM PC was born the OSs of use were mainly CP/M and in the horizon CP/M Concurrent. A bad negotiation with Digital was the reason of IBM to end with M$ and not by a good product.

    The revolution in the IT comes from the fact that the electronics is cheap and cheap every day and the market is huge.

    The main goal of the big companies is to handle everything in their clouds but GNU/Linux contains all the necessary stuff to deploy your own cloud at home.

    A milestone of GNU/Linux is to make this a reality in each home with its own cloud.

    The future is not dark it is even more exciting than for the others two main players in the field.

    Reply
  10. Ulrich
    13/11/2015

    Well, some phones have open bootloaders, so you can flash alternative ROMs, some of which are Android, some of which are not (Ubuntu, Sailfish, Firefox OS).
    But nice article!

    Reply
  11. Chris
    14/11/2015

    There were plenty of OS available for the S/360, both from IBM and third parties like universities. And all in source form back in the day.

    Reply
  12. PING: Netrunner, Firefox OS, Kubuntu, Qt5ct, Edward Snowden, Tor, FBI opiniones... » MuyLinux
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    […] ajenas que recomendaros. Cierro con la de Frank Karlitschek, fundador de ownCloud, que reflexiona en su blog acerca de todo esto que nos gusta tanto, de por qué Linux debería darle las gracias a Microsoft, […]

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    […] Why Linux should thank Microsoft and why the future is dark verissimissimo 😀 ::: Frank Karlitschek […]

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  14. soheiladham
    15/11/2015

    ok

    Reply

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