Monday, April 07, 2008

The Philosophy of Computing Platforms (Part 1)

An historical overview about how we got to this point ...

"The Beauty and The Beast: the Age of Commodity Computing

"Why is the Mac immune to criticism on Application Integration at the Operating System Level?" I was asked this question over at twitter by @digitalfilipino in response to my posting this link by on Windows 7 development. What follows is my train of thought on the matter.

Is the fundamental difference between platforms all about philosophy and human nature?

The story began, a long time ago, in a time, far, far away. There were two Steves, a Paul and a Bill. The age of the minicomputer was on. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started a small business upstart called Apple that sold computers. Bill Gates and Paul Allen on the other hand began a software company called Microsoft, founded to sell BASIC interpreters.

Even back then, the startling differences in their corporate philosophies was evident and those differences would shape not just their companies, the information technology industry but society at large. Apple was always an integrated company, shaped by the vision and natural salesmanship and personality of Steve Jobs and driven by the engineering genius of Woz. Apple since its inception has been a synergy of those great things. And Microsoft? Its relentless software focus, and core geek philosophy of its founders would take shape in the very operating system which they would use to dominate the world.

PCs for everyone was the dream but it wasn't until the early 1980s that computers started to become commodities and enter the mainstream. Enter the IBM PC.

Before the InterWeb, PCs were islands onto themselves. No one bothered with wires, Lans and Wifis. Want data passed between computers? Someone hands you a disk. You used those archaic devices called "Floppy disks". Call 'em the precursors of the CD, the usb flash drive. The PC as was the Apple before it, was birthed by the Philosophy of the age: do it yourself computers. The difference was, the PC was an Open Architecture meaning anybody could simply design hardware that could work with the PC.

By creating an Open Architecture, IBM had created what we call today, a "community". People would come in, design a hardware that would work for the PC because the standard was freely available to everyone and no matter who manufactured the PC, that device was guaranteed to work. The appeal was that anybody could build a PC from scratch to do what they want it to do.

A computer without software is like a human without a soul, without a consciousness thus, merely a pile of wires, silicon and plastic.

Operating Systems are the consciousness and unconsciousness in humans. Part of it directs everything we humans want the computer to do. Operating Systems know where to write a piece of data into the drive. It tells the DVD-ROM the instructions to spin when we humans want to watch a movie. It knows that the keyboard is a keyboard and not a mouse. It translates our keyboard and mouse interaction into what the computer could do.

So IBM at the dawn of the PC era, needed an Operating System to run the computer. In a bit of luck or faith for one Redmond company, the Operating System was subcontracted by IBM to Microsoft. This Operating System wasn't an Open Architecture as the PC was. Nobody cared back in the day about that. People were perfectly happy that Microsoft kept the OS growing. It didn't even talk to other computers as our computers do today. The network was farther off into the future.

The explosion of the PC hardware because it was an Open Architecture sent entrepreneurs building their own version of the PC. Businesses sprung like mushrooms building devices for the PC. There were video cards, and sound cards and hard drives were soon mainstream. It was like a sprawling bazaar where people could mix and match hardware. This Openness helped create business. By seeding the world with PC hardware, IBM had made possible the commodification of computers. But all of this hardware had to talk to the computer. Microsoft's Operating System needed to know all of those diverse devices. Want your sound card to play on every PC in the world? You had to write a device driver for Microsoft's Operating System.

And where was the nascent Internet of the time? It was silently cooking the back rooms of Universities, through copper wires and phone lines, through Electronic Bulletin Boards, ARPANET and USENET what would eventually become the web remained in the providence of hackers and university researchers."    (Continued via big mango)    [Usability Resources]


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