25 Years After DOS: Lessons Learned for Linux
by Walter V. Koenning for the Reallylinux.com OPINION/EDITORIAL section.

NOTICE: Our other recent OP/ED postings include:
Microsoft's Approach May Isolate U.S. Permanently
Open Source VS Windows: Reality of a Better Paradigm

Microsoft Corporation is preparing a gallant pageant to celebrate 25 years of what should at the very least be considered remarkable marketing. But what can the Linux world learn from Microsoft's past 25 years of unique experiences and domination? I think we can uncover a lot simply going back to that first fateful year when Microsoft released PC-DOS for IBM PCs (as a joint venture with IBM).

First, we must admit openly once and for all that the "best solution" is not always the "most used solution." There are few who would be foolish enough to argue that back in 1981 PC-DOS was the best solution.

There were obviously a number of choices. PC-DOS was the least robust, the most temperamental, and arguably not very compatible with the IBM hardware and BIOS it was sold to work on. Yet, somewhat like the odd but obvious dominance of the VHS over BETA, this simple, cheap OS stole the show.

With 25 years of hindsight we can now identify the three core ingredients that allowed PC-DOS to enter the race and then shockingly exceed all expectations. Indeed there were a number of OS choices, but PC-DOS was the best choice, if not the best solution. With its weak memory management capabilities, the issues with the original BIOS specifications and support, PC-DOS in any engineer's mind was not a superior product. But it was indeed three things:

  1. It was in the right place at the right time. Yes, timing is one of the obvious reasons why PC-DOS, later to become the well known MS-DOS made its debut, and survived to become the world's most dominant OS. The IBM compatible market skyrocketed the use of Microsoft's OS beyond even Bill and Paul's expectations.

  2. But wait. Timing can not possibly be the key ingredient. Sure enough there were two other ingredients essential to making the timing work out. The second was PC-DOS's price. It was cheap, and the cheapest of the options that at least for the entry IBM PC made it's debut. PC-DOS fit the home and small business market perfectly because it was cheap.

  3. And of course, if it was just plain cheap it still would have gone no where, unless it contained what I believe is conceivably the most important ingredient to Microsoft's initial success with a less than superior product. PC-DOS was simple. That's right, it was simple. I could shove that darn disk in to the drive, and so long as I knew to press the drive lock down the disk would spin and the OS would load. I could learn the basic set of commands within a few minutes. It was not just simple, but darn simple and made it possible for the genius and the technophobe to achieve the same results: operating a PC.

Yes, unquestionably Microsoft's unique ability to be "shipped with the PC" as pre-installed OS eventually gave it another huge advantage. But, in the earliest days there was NO PRE-INSTALL. It was about ease of bootup and loadup, sticking disks in to the drive to boot.

Now, let's start with the negative lessons learned. For one thing, I can say with every friend and colleague who has ever written software drivers, compiled kernels etc. Microsoft Windows is not a superior product. Look I say this with caution but sincerity since I began using DOS around the same time I had used UNIX and its variants, VMS, Stratus VOS and others. The initial Microsoft DOS just wasn't superior. This was at the time most obvious to the many people who had indeed used more superior products in academia and government. Ironically, most of these people who knew of better options were not on the marketing list for IBM's PCs.

So, the negative lesson learned: claiming Linux is a superior product often ticks people off more than it convinces them.

There are always more superior products, like when I go to the store and buy a plunger to deal with my toilet problem only to find it sucks at suction. The plumber comes over later in the day with a different plunger and within minutes he's done what I could not. That day I stopped buying those cheap trash plungers and went driving until I found one that looked exactly like the double suction plunger the plumber used! Okay, okay I know I'm getting side tracked, but talking about DOS makes me think of other things. The lesson is obvious. No one cares if the product is superior since everyone knows there is probably an even "more superior product" somewhere else. So to the Linux fanatics, please stop declaring Linux's superiority... it will not convince others even if you are totally right.

Now on to the positive lessons gleaned from the initial Microsoft successes of 25 years ago. Linux can indeed become the key operating system for both the enterprise and the desktop because there is currently a major vacuum.

"Linux can indeed become the key operating system for the enterprise and the desktop because it fills a major vacuum"

The vacuum was created as a result of many things. This vacuum amounts to the very same type of timing opportunity seen 25 years ago.

Politically a vacuum was created when other countries started hating the dominance of a U.S. corporation on their computer technology future. Few governments on earth today plan to continue using Microsoft on any major systems beyond 2015 because it inherently forfeits their own sovereign control over technology. This isn't new. If you watch the Linuxtoday.com news feeds you'll quickly see just how many nations are getting to the point of moving on with their own destiny.

Economically, it no longer makes sense to allow Microsoft to continue to dominate when alternatives exist without the characteristic elements of control, licensing dominance, and proprietary (hidden) code. Linux is indeed free. Free is about as inexpensive as you can get and therefore offers access to everyone, across social and economic lines. The potential market base for Linux is literally the world. Money is not the holdup.

Socially, the vacuum was created by greed. People all over the world, including Microsoft certified pros, can not escape the fact that Microsoft makes money from everyone. Microsoft is the richest company getting richer. It charges millions to the U.S. federal, state and local governments, for licensing and upgrades. Yes that means Microsoft gets wealthier from tax payer dollars. Microsoft challenges school systems that may have "illegal" software, it hunts down piracy in other countries, often in the poorest regions of the world like Africa, and it keeps getting more and more wealthy. A friend of mine told me he thinks that if Microsoft released just 10% of the roughly $2 BILLION in CASH (does not include other assets) to help curb diseases and help starvation, many people could be helped. Instead the goal and mode of operation is to continue to amass wealth. People see this. People know this. It bugs them. Few talk about it, but it bugs them to watch greed so openly flaunted. Maybe it bugs me too? We like philanthropy and generosity, because it helps address fundamental human needs. Linux is perfectly poised to fill this gaping vacuum created by potential greed.

Therefore, we find that indeed Linux is showing itself true at the right time, when vacuums exist. Linux is indeed inexpensive and addresses the question of pricing and cost basis. Now finally, to the third success factor from Microsoft's initial run. What about simple? Is Linux simple to use? The final and perhaps most vital aspect towards making Linux the number one operating system on earth has to do with user experience. Today Linux is still overwhelmed by too many options and not enough focus on simplicity.

But this is not a "shame on you" article to the community. I love the Linux community and write with confidence that within a few short months, at most a year, the easy to use interfaces, the quality device drivers, the installation enhancements will prove that Linux is also simple, straight forward, and undeniably ready for the mass consumer market. I don't think we will wait too long, because there are already many groups of people working on this aspect.

My only question now is not if but when will Linux become the number one OS on earth? When this happens we can all give thanks for the key lessons learned from Microsoft's 25 year life cycle.

Walter V. Koenning is a technology writer and provides insights regarding industry trends. He contributes regularly to the OPINION/EDITORIAL segments on Reallylinux.com.

This brief opinion piece should not be construed as factual information, and only contains the opinions and personal experiences of the author at the time of publication. Reallylinux.com could not find information in this article that at the time of publication was inaccurate. However, the opinions and personal experiences that have been posted do not express the opinions of Reallylinux.com and are not endorsed in any way. Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds. IBM, PC-DOS, and OS/2 are the registered trademarks or trademarks of International Business Machines. Microsoft, Microsoft Windows, MS-DOS are trademarks or registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation both in the United States and Internationally. All other trademarks or registered trademarks in this opinion piece belong to their respective owners.