Monday 10 September 2012

Mobile OSes and the UNIX Workstation Wars

Last week I wrote about tech culture having shorter and shorter memories. When an old friend reminded me of the Apollo Domain workstation, one of the first proper graphical workstations on the market back in the 1980s, I was struck by the resemblance between the current mobile market and the workstation market then.

Back then PCs were slow things that accountants used for spreadsheets and on which secretaries typed up documents in Word Perfect, not realising that their whole profession was soon to vanish. Serious minded people with engineering degrees and beards needed the oomph of a Graphical Workstation.

Apollo's Domain was one of the last proprietary operating systems as UNIX spread. Indeed, if you go back to that seminal work on technology entrepreneurship, Gordon Bell's High-tech Ventures, securing a UNIX license is one of the steps any startup must go through.

UNIX was everywhere, except that everyone had their own "added value" version and silly name. IBM with AIX, HP with HPUX, Sun with SunOS then Solaris, Digital with Ultrix, ICL with PNX for the short-lived Perq product. Each one vaguely similar yet irritating different.

Over in the world of PCs there was Windows and a tiny number of people using Macintoshes. CP/M was already dead and nobody in their right mind was making new operating systems until some bright spark came up with the idea of an open-source version of UNIX.

Strikes me that the world of mobile is very similar - each company has it's own variant on a theme, all with some kind of irritating "added value". What can we learn from this? While most of those old UNIX versions still linger on in high-value data center systems, the workstation market has vanished, leaving a world with Windows, Macintosh and a smattering of Linux amongst techie people. Hardware makers went back to doing hardware and just licensing software, limiting their efforts to littering their products with useless extras. The consumer and non-specialist market prefers something it recognises.

RIM and its efforts to make something out of BB10 remind me most of Apollo and Domain. Brilliant at the time, but eventually succumbed to the lower-cost, standardised UNIX layer. Acquired and assimilated into HP in the end. 

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