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It's Not Over

Steve Jobs said the X Window System is brain damaged and will disappear in two years. He got it half right.
 - Dennis Ritchie


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Steve Jobs gets a lot of things right. He also gets a lot of things half right. Some things he even gets completely wrong.

It's hard to reconcile a desire to control the 'primary technology in everything we do' with a resignation that the 'PC wars are over' and 'Microsoft won a long time ago'.

If Microsoft won the 'PC wars' then it's a sad victory indeed. The PC of today is the main device for connecting to the Internet and the Internet - thanks to the PC - is in a shambles. It's hard to grasp how a dinky device like Windows could fully collapse a huge system like the Internet but there you have it. Between the viruses and trojans and worms and botnets there's little victory left save in the pyrrhic sense of the word.

UNIX is basically a simple operating system but you have to be a genius to understand the simplicity.
 - Dennis Ritchie


Although Windows continues to dominate on the desktop there's another critter running the Internet servers. Microsoft have a part of this market but amongst the professionals they're not the preferred choice. Unix is. The Internet was built on and for Unix machines. The Internet and Unix make a perfect fit. And it's fair to say that if the majority of desktops were running Unix today the bulk of the malware would be no more.

All you have to do is figure out how to defeat the Microsoft juggernaut and convince ordinary punters they want to make the switch.

Ten years ago Steve Jobs had the Windows killer. Not a Windows killer - 'the' Windows killer. NeXTSTEP was built not for its own time but for what people want and need today. Twenty years ago it is still twenty five years ahead of its time today. It's the only 'GUI layer' that properly addresses the exigencies of the GUI desktop. It was and remains a singularly brilliant system.

And by the time Steve Jobs came back victorious to Cupertino in 1997 NeXT had their OS running on almost everyone's computer. Now they called it OPENSTEP and now it could run on other operating systems but the point is they had platform independent software.

It took us three years to build the NeXT computer. If we'd given customers what they said they wanted we'd have built a computer they'd have been happy with a year after we spoke to them - not something they'd want now.
 - Steve Jobs


Things changed dramatically once Steve and the NeXT engineers moved into One Infinite Loop. The old Apple guard wanted to preserve what they themselves had proved incapable of preserving. They didn't want the clean lines of NeXTSTEP and OPENSTEP - they wanted a 'beige makeover' incorporating ideas of their own they simply didn't want to let go of.

Pundits can argue forever about this. On the one side they're going to always insist Steve Jobs did the right thing in retreating from the open market, curtailing cross platform support - all the while promising it to independent developers of course - and ultimately not really playing the open source game either. But the alternative is too tempting to dismiss.

With a Windows killer Steve Jobs could today dominate in a market with close to one and one half billion desktop computers in use. Selling his operating system at $129 a pop to 1.5 billion people nets quite a bit of money.

Part of the other argument is no one would buy Apple hardware if they could get the software anyway. This is simply ludicrous: for the most part the people saying this are the people who wouldn't buy anything else and never have bought anything else. Instead what Apple have done is limit their influence in the OS market, keeping their product hamstrung with a 'dongle' a lot of potential customers don't want - even if they admit it looks to be a good product.

The general purpose PC isn't that important and the future belongs to smart connected appliances.
 - John Lettice


Apple cannot 'dominate' in both the hardware and software markets. That's an impossibility. IBM knew well enough - they deliberately crafted the PC market so as to encourage - to use the market to force - competition. Both in the hardware and software fields. No market can thrive without widespread support on both sides - IBM saw that in the burgeoning CP/M market of the 1970s. Steve Jobs didn't.

Recreating the miracle of NeXTSTEP shouldn't be an insurmountable task. No more so than recreating the genius of the Unix kernel as Linus Torvalds has done. Unfortunately no one has come along who can engender the necessary enthusiasm and captain such a project as Linus over a long period of time. The abortive GNUstep has long ago languished: it's the oldest of the Linux GUIs and even today cannot make it out the door. A recent attempt to take GNUstep code and finally make it turnkey (Étoilé) has fallen flat as well. The interest doesn't seem to be there and no one is showing any consistent enthusiasm or leadership.

Mark Shuttleworth has recently said a number of things. First he said he'd like the Linux (Ubuntu) GUIs to be as pretty as Apple's; when he was taken to task for such a superficial approach he added that he thought it a shame NeXT and Apple's Objective-C wasn't used more in Linux.

It took us three years to build the NeXT computer. If we'd given customers what they said they wanted we'd have built a computer they'd have been happy with a year after we spoke to them - not something they'd want now.
 - Steve Jobs


This is a naive perspective to say the least. Shuttleworth admits he's not much of a 'real programmer', finding it difficult to deal with matters on the level of C. But that no one else in the open source community has been able to come forward and take up the challenge is very sad. Most of the open source developers of today have little or no experience using true object orientation and most of them are only acquainted with one major commercial graphical interface - the deplorable Windows. They will never realise what they're missing because they've never seen what it is.

Sun Microsystems were once on their way to propagating 'OpenStep': Bud Tribble who was one of the original Macintosh programmers and one of the 'seven' who followed Steve Jobs from Apple to NeXT was at Sun at the time; the project was shelved for the sake of another product developed in-house by James Gosling and called 'Java'. [Sun's documentation of 'OpenStep' remains online at their website to this day.]

I've always wanted to own and control the primary technology in everything we do.
 - Steve Jobs


But OpenStep isn't just prettier to look at and much easier to work with and develop for: it's also infinitely more secure. And that's what the world needs now first and foremost - not pretty icons. The Internet represents the most significant watershed in human civilisation. It dwarfs the invention of the printing press. It puts information and its use in a totally new perspective. And this new beginning cannot and must not be corrupted by the kludge and bug farm and malware attractor that is Windows. The situation is simply untenable. Unacceptable. It will not stand.

For if Bill Gates and Microsoft and Windows have truly won the 'PC wars' then it's all over for all of us. But it cannot be over. The human spirit will never allow it.

The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago.
 - Steve Jobs

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