A retrospective on trends in operating systems and the similarities with current trends in the mobile device market

It’s almost sixteen years ago that Microsoft succeeded in bringing a standard operating system to market which could easily be installed and configured by non-technical consumers on x86 based personal computers. The success of Windows 95 was primarily related to the intuitive user interface but the plug and play features and the ability to download and install applications by simply clicking next, next and finish made this platform easily adopted by many users worldwide. Hardware vendors focused on the development of the required drivers for their devices, making operating system and hardware independent. Personal Computers became relatively cheap for the simple reason that there was a lot of competition between hardware vendors. Even nowadays, personal computers are cheaper as they were in 1995 where almost everything else in the world became more expensive.

Another result of the success of Windows 95 is that software vendors introduced substantial amounts of applications for this platform with the upcoming internet as a distribution channel. For the first time, users with limited technical knowledge were in control of the capabilities of the device. Terms as freeware and shareware were introduced and this kind of software was (and still is) widely exploited. Microsoft emphasized on the intuitive user interface with the start button on the left bottom and running multiple programs at the same time (playing the Rolling Stones Song ‘Start me Up’ with the introduction of Windows 95 to the world).

Nevertheless were the automated installation capabilities also making Windows a vulnerable object for malicious software, introducing the terms spyware and malware as well. Microsoft also heavily depended on the responsibility of hardware vendor in developing drivers without compromising the stability of the platform in general. Innumerable times users got confronted with the BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) which is in fact a stop error and was mainly caused by bugs in third party hardware drivers, making them lose valuable work time. One year later Microsoft introduced Windows NT4 which adopted the interface of Windows 95 to offer users the same familiar user interface both at home and at work. Windows NT4 also introduced the administrators group on the workstation platform to limit the rights and permissions for standard users and NTFS became the preferred file system from a security perspective.  This wasn’t really appreciated by end-users but the  result was that Windows NT4 was, compared to Windows 95,  a far more stable platform which made Windows NT4 the preferred operating system on professional workstations.

In fact, the intuitive user interface of Windows based workstations showed quite some similarities with the user interface of Mac Workstations. At that time i worked as an infrastructure engineer for a company which was specialized in the development of multimedia content for both the commercial and the educational market. In this company, Mac OS was traditionally the standard operating system for  development workstations which was at that time already neither required from a functional perspective nor advisable from a cost perspective. The main reason was that at that time, Adobe products were the de facto standard for the graphical industry and were primarily written for Mac OS which made Apple preferred from a performance perspective.

The fact that Apple’s Mac OS is developed solely for Apple devices  made them in control in the development of the devices, the (limited amount of) device drivers and the operating system which was beneficial for stability. The relatively high costs involved with Mac workstations made them in most cases not preferred as a standard operating system for a wide range of users, but the user friendly interface and the stability of the system made them appreciated by many.

Trends in the Mobile Device Market

The same pattern is currently followed in the mobile operating system market. The acclaimed intuitive user interface of the iPhone was highly appreciated by consumers and the market share of Apple in the mobile device market became quickly substantial. As a result of the success of the iPhone, software vendors started developing massive amounts of applications for this platform, with the AppStore as a distribution channel. Apparently, an intuitive user interface and the ability to install applications by end users with limited technical experience are keys for success in this market. The only problem is….. they’re a little expensive for the regular consumer.

So the user interface of Windows Mobile shows obviously quite some similarities with the acclaimed iPhone interface and is available on devices of multiple vendors. Windows Mobile is currently available on HTC and Samsung devices and Nokia even adopted Windows Mobile as there standard operating system for mobile devices. So Symbian OS is the first to disappear from the arena. The problem is that there’s currently no market place similar to Apple’s AppStore and that there are a few new kids on the block.

An Operating System with a quite loyal user group has recently been extended by a vast amount of new young users who highly utilize the advantages of a specific application which is the reason they bought the device in the first place. This Operating System is RIM’s Blackberry OS and the application is called PING. The amount of available applications for this OS is limited and it is only available on Blackberry Devices. The loyalty of Blackberry users and the dependence on Ping to call your friends allows RIM to keep a consistent share in the mobile market.

Google introduced Android which is currently available on devices of 37 different manufacturers with an interface which also shows suspiciously much similarity with the iPhone interface and it has a marketplace. So in my opinion, Android is holds all the requirements to be the new Windows 95 and apparently Microsoft is not happy with that for several reasons on which I will elaborate more in my next post.

to be continued….


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