The Battle Is Over – Linux Won

It wasn’t that many years ago that every year was “the year of Linux”.  That was the year we were going to gain enough credibility to topple the giant of proprietary operating systems.  That was the year we were going to break 1 percent of the market!  Yeah!  Always there was the constant, amused recounting of OS sales by the Windows faithful, we went back and forth constantly.  The mouse and the elephant.

That was what?  Seven or eight years ago?  The heady days of 2004 when the first version of Ubuntu, 4.10 the Warty Warthog, burst on the scene.  Seems funny now, doesn’t it?  Linux has clawed its way to near 2 percent of the desktop market but the reason it’s funny now is those numbers are no longer relevant.  The battle is over, decided by forces that ultimately had nothing to do desktop numbers.

The desktop market is entering its twilight phase in computer history, edged out by an exploding array of inexpensive phones, mobile devices, tablets, and specialty devices such as ebook readers, many of them running some variation of Linux.  If you were paying attention, you could see it coming.  Japan was where the device market started to take hold and, once it got going, it just kept on growing.  Still growing today.

To be sure the desktop market is still healthy and Windows still dominates that market, particularly since Microsoft finally managed to field an operating system nearly as good as Linux.  Windows 7 was the OS Microsoft owed the computing world since Windows 95.  And they did it in spite of Steve Ballmer still being in charge.  It’s good work, give them credit.   Microsoft remains the king of last week’s computer technology, the dominant force in a fading era of computing.

Microsoft lost because, like many big companies, they were fighting the wrong battle.  Too big and too slow to adapt to a changing market flooded with smaller, cheaper devices.  It’s hard to justify $150 for the operating system on a $90 device.  Sure, Microsoft tried to stay relevant with Windows Mobile…excuse me while I try not snicker at the very mention of the name.  Windows Mobile was sort of like your dad trying act cool around your college girlfriends.

Another technology trend conspired against Microsoft: the cloud.  That term sets my teeth on edge.  I remember it being called “javascript”, “web services” and later “SAS”, Software as a Service.  It started simple enough, then “cloud” applications started to grow in functionality and complexity.  It wasn’t long before they were rivaling the low end functionality of their desktop counterparts.  Many users liked the fact you didn’t need a two day training class and $500 piece of software to dash off a quick memo.  Today the functionality of cloud-based applications is easily 85% of many desktop applications and growing by the day.  They’re convenient, functional and inexpensive.

Still another trend was virtualization.  Suddenly the operating system was simply another specialized program.  After all, what does the OS really do?  It just sits there, serving as platform to run applications.  With virutualized servers you could change operating systems like Lindsay Lohan changes rehab centers.

The tech world is in the process of shifting.  Shifting from a focus on operating systems to a focus on applications.  The OS means nothing.  When you click a button, swipe the screen or even peck away on those old fashioned keyboards it’s the application you interact with, not the operating system.  More and more frequently it’s an application that’s running on a virtualized instance of a server in another part of the world.  Most people don’t know or care what operating system they’re using, all they care about are their apps.  The age of OS wars is, in many ways, already over.

It came as a surprise to many when Apple topped Microsoft’s market cap not long ago.  One company on its way up, the other on the way down.  Nothing illustrates that decline more than the news that Microsoft is extorting HTC $5 for every Android phone it ships in a patent dispute.  Android is an operating system based on Linux developed by Google.

Instead of innovating and competing, Microsoft has turned into the legal bully on the block trying to shake down smaller kids for their lunch money.  It’s pathetic and, ultimately, a losing strategy.  Dinosaurs fighting for the last warm spot in a changing world climate.   You can fight the market for a while but, sooner or later, the market wins.  I don’t know of any company of any size to survive solely on the strength of their patents.

As far as the operating system wars go, we won that battle.

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