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Wednesday October 17 2007

Having already written earlier about Vista for CNE, here, I did a short quote-of-the-day posting at Samizdata, trawling for Samizdata commentariat opinion about Vista.  In among the nonsense and the abuse and the political doom-mongering, that kind of question often gets really informative answers.

It worked.  Fellow Samizdatista Midwesterner responded as follows:

Back in my computer geek days (before QDOS!) I saw a far amount of IBM applications source code.  I had to modify and maintain the crap on occasion.  At the same time, I was designing and building from scratch an inventory system that was unavailable from any vendor. 

Seeing systems from the inside out, I quickly developed an instinct for patchwork.  I could spend a few seconds at a terminal operating a program and tell immediately if it was clean and elegantly coded, or patch on patch on patch with bits and pieces borrowed and modified.  The instant I touched a DOS based GUI for the very first time, it positively detonated my crap detectors.  Early Macs did not trigger it, but more recent versions do to a lesser extent.

The biggest cost of all these patches as a way of doing business is best understood by looking at the Y2K software meltdown.  Decades ago, when I was programming, dates were stored as six digit numbers.  Source code was often kept in entirely different places and compiled on entirely different computers than object code executed on.  As bugs got worked out and systems became reliable, expertise in the source code faded and eventually, the source code itself was lost.  When time came to modify computers to accept years beginning in 2000, the software and expertise was unavailable to do it.  Third party companies made fortunes.

Something very similar is happening in Windows.  I’ve never looked under the hood at the actual software, but I can hear the old bubblegummed and bailing wired engine knocking, rattling and I can even smell the smoke.  Meanwhile MS polishes the fenders, adds more chrome and installs a 150mph speedometer.  Nick would know the answer to this more than I would, but I would bet one of my computers that there are still vestiges of QDOS performing critical functions somewhere inside these boxes.  I don’t think the people who wrote this stuff are still available to maintain it or modify it.  I believe that MS is so heavily invested in this accretion and so helpless to overhaul it, that they are into a mode of patching the patches to the patches.

It is actually a lot like the old cathedrals that surround an older church that surrounds and even older shrine, that surrounds an even earlier monument that marks ...  er ... something.  We think.

This, not price, is why open source software will ultimately win.

I find the comparison with IBM especially interesting, having lived, amazed, through their dethronement, by Microsoft.  I can confirm that people on the inside of all this stuff did indeed talk, then, about IBM in just the same way that they now talk about Microsoft.

More anecdotage has accumulated since.  From the same Nick M mentioned by Midwesterner:

There’s a bit in the Simpsons where Carl and Lenny are looking at a rotating cake stand in the power-plant cafeteria. One asks the other, “What do you think makes it go round”? The “camera” then pans down to a slave in a dungeon being whipped whilst pushing a wheel attached to a shaft, attached to the revolving patisserie selection ...

My first contact with Vista involved setting up a spanking new HP laptop out of the box. Vista was on a hidden partition and it just had to unpack itself… Easy work I thought. Noooo! It crashed during install but not before It briefly flashed up a good ole Dos screen complete with C:\> prompt (I thought it was 1991 again). It even flashed up a DOS version number! I didn’t the number because MS’s dirty secret was only very briefly revealed but the gimp in the basement is alive and well and turning the cogs ...

Open source will win because *nix was from the start designed to be scalable and there has to be a limit on how much longer Redmond can carry on papering over the cracks. The lead time for Vista suggests they’re well into diminishing returns already.

Oh, somewhere down in the catacombs there’s QDos and the 640K limit and all the rest.

Subotai Bahadur writes of Vista:

There is the anecdotal evidence of my boffin’s claim that it is the most screwed up thing that Microsoft has ever released, and it is confirmed empirically by the fact that he has developed quite a profitable niche converting brand new computers purchased with Vista pre-installed back to XP. There has to be something severely wrong for this kind of niche market to arise spontaneously.

I have my Guru, and Subotai Bahadur has his Boffin.  It looks like we both use a foreign word, to capture the esoteric nature of the knowledge involved.  Subotai Bahadur is just the kind of commenter I was looking for.  I don’t recall him commenting at Samizdata much, but this time he had something pertinent and interesting to say so he said it.  Lovely.

The original post being three days ago, which is an age in Samizdata time, those interested in things like this might have missed these last few comments, as would geekophobes, i.e. most people.  I get an email for each comment because I did the original posting, and on this occasion I was particularly grateful for that.

If technophobe, geekophobe me is noticing stuff like this, Vista is really in trouble.

UPDATE: Nick M responds to Subotai, ending his comment thus:

If I were Jobs or Shuttleworth I’d be on medication to prevent asphyxiation due to chronic uncontrollable laughter.

They being the gentlemen in charge of Apple, and Ubuntu (which is a particularly user-friendly version of Linux).  But, for Ubuntu to sweep the world, it needs to be even user-friendlier.  And for Apple to sweep the world it must lower its prices.

My Guru also told me when last he dropped by that those adverts with the Microsoft Twat being sneered at by the Apple Cool Guy were a dreadful own goal, which all of us Microsoft Twats felt thoroughly insulted by.  That entirely confirms my personal response to them.

And for Apple to sweep the world it must lower its prices.

The trouble is that I don’t really believe that Apple’s machine are overly expensive for what they are. They are high end machines, and they come with quite a lot of software included, of the sort of software that appeals to their target market. Compared to Windows machines (say those from Sony) with similar specs and similar software and good design, they are priced quite competitively.

What is different about Apple is that they pretty much don’t do low end machines. (Sony and Fujitsu do low end machines as well as high end, and Dell and HP are pretty much entirely about doing low end machines). They prefer to stick to their high margin business and not get into the low margin stuff. Probably if they do low end stuff thet think they wouldn’t make too much money and would damage their brand and they might be right. (And again the Apple Cool guy sneering at the Microsoft twat ads were only an own goal if Apple was trying to sell computers to the Microsoft twat demographic. And I am not sure they were).

This is fine. Apple probably make more money from their PC business than Dell do, even though Dell sell many times the number of machines. What it does mean is that Apple are not going to conquer the entire PC business. I don’t think they want to.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 17 October 2007

It is actually a lot like the old cathedrals that surround an older church that surrounds and even older shrine, that surrounds an even earlier monument that marks ...  er ... something.

How much of this is unavoidable? I don’t know enough (traslation - nothing!) about Linux and its variants, but surely open source software is subject to the same incremental additions and growth? How long will it continue to be scalable?

Posted by ian on 17 October 2007

There’s a long way to go before Ubuntu sweeps the world as well- and I wonder how much they really want to either. Linux people are notably elitist, in my experience.

Posted by Scott Wickstein on 17 October 2007

A few years back I was going to get a new computer system and I wasn’t locked into any platform.  I had been using mostly Macs.

This was during the time of the Mac clones.  The clone development really excited me as it meant hardware prices would go down and Mac finally understood that the product was the OS, not the box.  My gut instinct at that time told me that within 3 - 5 years MacOS would have a 30 to 40 percent market share.

Then the bean counters running Mac decided to optimize 1 year profits over either market share or 3 to 5 years profits.  They lined the clones up against the wall and massacred them in order to boost hardware sales.  In a fit of retaliation, I chose a PC platform (Toughbooks, currently 2 XPPro and 1 2000.)

Also, Mac (to my experience, anyway) badly botched the 9 to X transition.  Both good enough products but the transition was the equivalent, in spite of all claims, of a total platform change.  Not only was the 9 emulator a predictable nightmare, it wouldn’t even emulate any applications I had.  I had to keep rebooting between native 9 and X.

I think the next five years are going to see a huge shake out in OSs and I’m betting on Linux.  But not betting enough to pick one and make a change yet.  The dark horse is some entirely new as yet unknown kernel or some new *nix open source.

Posted by Midwesterner on 17 October 2007

Does anyone remember Xenix? That was the version of Unix sold by Microsoft to those clients for whom MS-DOS was inadequate. The fact that Microsoft itself recognised the superiority of Unix does not fill me with confidence when faced with their current crop of DOS-based systems.

Also, when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple they claimed that their business plan was to sell their amazing hardware while continuing to keep their software developments in the public domain, as was the style in those days. I think they would do well to return to that idea. Sell their nice, high-end hardware at a high but reasonable price and return their software to the Open Source model from whence it came.

Posted by Anomenat on 18 October 2007

They are sort of doing that already with programs like iTunes.

Posted by Scott Wickstein on 18 October 2007

I think the poor showing by Vista is really that, as an OS, it doesn’t do much more than XP does.  Why learn a new OS when all it really is is a new user interface? The OS should provide access to the machine’s capabilities and provide an adequate user interface; the rest should be the domain of the available applications, and all the necessary apps for most people are already available for XP.  None of this convinces me that I should now switch to a Mac, unless of course Microsoft discontinues support for XP.

Perhaps all this means that the OS has finally reached the commodity phase.  So this does, or should, signal to Microsoft that growth will need to come from things other than the OS.  I don’t think that that means Microsoft is going down, it just requires some adjusting.

Posted by JDN on 23 October 2007
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