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We'll soon see who wins the next round.
In 2008 we'll get the tipping point, says Eric Raymond. By then the demand for 64-bit systems will have picked a winner that will remain at the top of the heap for the next 40 or so years. And according to Raymond it's far from given the winner will be Microsoft.
After analysing data on the history of personal computing, Raymond has come to the conclusion that major architectural upheavals such as the move from 8-bit to 16-bit and the move from 16-bit to 32-bit determine who dominates in the marketplace.
Microsoft won the market after the last transition to 32-bit but now there are three contenders to take the market in the next transition - and that transition, says Raymond, will take place in the year 2008 and not be superseded until perhaps the year 2050 (when presumably there'll be a move to 128-bit computing).
The three contenders for hegemony starting in 2008, according to Raymond, are Microsoft, Apple - and 'open source'.
Vista is not a true 64-bit operating system, and so Microsoft do not yet have a product to meet future demands. Raymond won't count Microsoft out however as they are noted for being the dirtiest bastards in the industry. But as things stand they are actually the least likely to win the market in the next transition for the time being.
Apple have it all in place, says Raymond, and if the 'battle' took place today they'd walk away with the spoils. Apple do everything right that Microsoft do wrong and their system is a turnkey 'it just works' system that even Raymond himself was tempted to purchase at one impasse.
But Apple are still proprietary and they're still locking their OS to their own computer hardware, and the potential cost of supporting the OS on anyone's hardware could be prohibitive. Not that it's not a tempting gamble, says Raymond, but there are reasons to fret.
Further, the Apple CEO Steve Jobs may very well be more interested today in the other side of his business ventures, namely consumer electronics and 'Hollywood' entertainment. Jobs is the single biggest shareholder in Disney and therefore a candidate for CEO some time in the future; because of his iPod and iTunes business he's today in the 'in crowd' in Hollywood and he might lose interest in the OS.
Finally, Apple make much more money today off their consumer electronics business and so may be encouraged for strict financial reasons to let the computer side go.
Not to say Jobs and Apple wouldn't embrace a victory in 2008 if it were theirs, cautions Raymond, but that victory is far from a given.
Open source represents the only realistic way to go forward, opines Raymond, but the path to hegemony is currently full of rubble. Open source in the form of Linux has been ready for 64-bit computing for over ten years, and yet the 'geekiness' of open source makes it difficult for ordinary people to adapt it.
For someone like Raymond it must be difficult to understand why anyone would not share his fascination with computing science, and yet he manages it admirably. The great majority of intelligent computer users are professionals in other fields and already intellectually occupied with keeping up with their own professions.
There's certainly an element of 'delegation of responsibility' here - in other words as time goes on the 'uneducated populace' will be more and more educated. But until then and even then there are any number of common sense issues which the open source community simply don't grasp.
Once such example, says Raymond, is the way open sorcerers write OS setup routines. They really don't put themselves in the shoes of the 'victims' who have to use them - instead of asking all the important questions at the outset so the user can leave the computer for a while and pay a visit to the corner pub, they often halt halfway through to ask further questions. Setups are in other words not easy in the world of 'open source'.
Another matter is to continually keep in mind exactly what people use computers for. Unix and Linux may be the most vetted operating systems ever, but people want multimedia capabilities and lots of other goodies the open source community cannot currently supply in any adequate fashion.
No matter if Microsoft or Apple win, Raymond points out, we'll still be tramped on by a monopoly, and no one wants that. The only solution people will be really glad about is the open source solution.
In that scenario the operating system itself becomes a common denominator on all computers across the planet, OEMs all fully support it, and IT business becomes a matter of supplying the necessary hardware or requested add-on software. It's a bit of a different business model from that of today but it's the only one with future written over it.
Most people in the know would give anything to ensure Microsoft didn't win this time around again. Many people doubt Apple can cope with a situation where they're in such demand and where they have to fully 'open source' their OS kernel.
Yet most people recognise that the open source community after all these years still don't have a clue how to win the market. Linus may have got his OS kernel all the way to Mars, but his friends still haven't figured out how to get it across to that other planet called 'earth'.