At this point there are really only three major contenders on the desktop market; Windows, GNU/Linux and Mac OS X. It is a known fact that Windows still holds the vast majority of the market for reasons which are beyond this article, but pretty much come down to Microsoft’s sheer power rather than the quality of their OS. GNU/Linux has recently become ready for the desktop in terms of general usability and user friendliness required by desktop users. Sure there are some glitches, but those aren’t anymore the major constraint to its adoption. It is now up to computer vendors and major marketing. Mac OS X is a curious one though. Unlike Windows and GNU/Linux, Mac OS X is tied to computers made only by one manufacturer: Apple. If you run Mac OS X you ought to be running an Apple computer. It is in fact easier to run some other operating system on Apple computers than it is to run Mac OS X on other type of computers.
And this is just a clue to the point behind this article. It is about the Apple way, its biggest strength and at the same time the biggest weakness, or at least a reason behind the currently evident fact that Apple cannot dominate the desktop market.
So what is this Apple way. In short it is about treating computers as appliances, in a way similar to the way you would treat your television set or, to go even more extreme, yourfridge. Apple makes their computers look, feel and act as appliances. They work the way you would expect them to work. It is the “just works” concept taken to extremes. In order to achieve this kind of experience for users, Apple makes their operating system as a perfect fit for their machines, or maybe vice versa. One fits the other like a glove and no one is expecting anything else. It is as if software which runs the machine is completely abstracted.
This obviously means that if you want a Mac experience you will have to pay the full price of not only the operating system, but the computer on which it will run as well, at the same time. You can’t just get Mac OS X and run it on your existing machines. The price that this often bears is too high for many to pay, especially considering the alternatives.
Now consider GNU/Linux. It is the total opposite of Mac OS X in this regard. While Mac OS X will run only on Apple machines, GNU/Linux runs pretty much on everything it touches. While Mac OS X is necessarily expensive, GNU/Linux can very well be obtained for free. While Mac OS X is a proprietary operating system completely controlled by one company, GNU/Linux is a free (as in freedom and often price) operating system developed and contributed to by a vast international networked community which actually includes a multitude of corporations. Where Apple is essentially a fortress, GNU/Linux is an ocean. It flows through everything and is available to anyone.
So when we consider this, who has a better chance of winning over the desktop market if we assume that Windows is on the way out? Is it more likely that the majority of people will pay the price for the Apple experience or just get GNU/Linux for free? Before answering that consider the accelerating evolution of quality of GNU/Linux, which may very well at some point exceed the quality of Mac OS X. GNU/Linux probably already has more brainpower behind its development than Apple and this number is increasing with its adoption. How long will it take before Apple, and for that matter, any other proprietary software company, just couldn’t compete with the kind of innovation and evolution that this open community can provide for?
In fact, there is a bit of irony in all this. The reason because Mac OS X just works flawlessly on Macs, is because Apple didn’t have to worry about making their OS work on multiple kinds of computer configurations. They produce a computer and the OS to run on it themselves. I don’t believe there is anything quite that mysterious about Mac OS X working so well. It was simply an easier job to do when they focus on only one platform, their own. But what if GNU/Linux achieves the same kind of flawless usability without relegating itself to one platform? GNU/Linux is very modular and flexible. It had to be that way as an OS that was developed over the network, essentially lived on the internet. While Mac OS X fits perfectly to the Apple computers, GNU/Linux in a way fits perfectly to the network, and network implies all kinds of computers and digital devices you can think of. Imagine an operating system that seamlessly and intelligently morphs to adapt to any architecture, any computer configuration and any digital device that is connected to provide for the flawless user experience on anything it touches.
That, my friends, is what GNU/Linux has the potential of becoming. So what do you choose? An OS that flawlessly runs on only one kind of computers or an OS which flawlessly runs on the whole network of the world which begins on your very desktop?
Unless Apple changes who they are, a computer appliance company, I doubt they have a chance of dominating the desktop market of the networked world. As for Windows, it is already falling under its own weight due to its proprietary nature which in a different way limits its potential compared to GNU/Linux, but that is a story for another time.
French translation of this article available (Thanks to David Larlet)