Microsoft, like Unix crowd, will find that more is less

“There are too many flavors.” That was the knock on Unix given to me
when I asked why we should switch our network operating system from Unix to Microsoft
Windows NT.


Too many versions wasn’t the only explanation, according to one of the information
technology managers involved in the decision. Other, less-public reasons were that Windows
had a familiar look and feel and that the technical support staff never was very
comfortable with Unix in the first place.


Yet complex technical problems tend to generate complex technical solutions. Today the
different versions of Windows present many of the incompatibilities that rightly concerned
my colleagues when they evaluated Unix. Now Windows seems to have as many variants as Unix
ever did.


Strangely enough, Unix, after 30 years, is beginning to coalesce around a single
version, Linux, built by volunteers under the leadership of a Finnish university
professor.


Although I was the agency’s IT standards maven, I was not in on the decision to
move from Unix to NT. If you are the only standards person for your agency, you can expect
trouble when your responsibilities cover the computing platforms of hundreds, thousands or
hundreds of thousands of employees. I didn’t realize it at the time, but reassignment
from that position was a blessing: No more tilting at Windows.


In our Unix days, we worried about compatibility among AIX, HP-UX and a bunch of
others. Now there are Windows’ many flavors. A handful of diehards or skinflints
stick with Windows 3.1. A few more use Windows for Workgroups 3.11. Most federal users
have kept pace with the technology from Redmond by dutifully buying Windows 95, which
comes in three flavors—many more if you count the choice of FAT or FAT32 file
formats. And we cannot forget Windows CE, the OS used in handheld computers. And now
Windows 98 is out.


Windows NT comes in the basic versions of 3.5, 3.51 and 4.0. Each NT version has a
fleet of service packs, adding more nuances to the range of the OS’ characteristics.


Moreover, NT will support your choice of file formats: FAT, FAT32, IBM High Performance
File System and its own NT File System.


Someday Merced, the mainframe version of Windows, will roll out. This feat will be much
more difficult because the underlying hardware and software architectures are proprietary.


Success brings Microsoft itself a new set of challenges. The company has adroitly leapt
over the 32-bit hurdle, moving its massive user base from 16-bit processor and bus
technology with nary a casualty.


Likewise, Gates and company are now making lemonade out of the challenge the Web posed
to Microsoft’s hegemony. Few chief executive officers have the brains and the guts to
move their multibillion dollar empires the way Bill Gates has. It is an astonishing
accomplishment equivalent to moving from radio to broadcast TV to cable technology in 15
years.


Despite—or because of—massive investment, reorganization and restructuring,
IBM Corp. dropped out of the PC OS race, ceding it to Microsoft. OS/2 Warp is a historical
footnote, despite the efforts of a rabid band of die-hard followers.


Sun Microsystems Inc.’s open systems specification for Windows never caught on.
Other computer manufacturers don’t appear to have any desire to enter the fray.


The price of ubiquity has been considerable. Despite its contemporary-looking face, a
look under the Windows hood reveals vestiges of every stage of its evolution. The typical
PC Windows system directory is a hodgepodge of controls and executables, some dating back
to the earliest days of personal computing.


The Windows Registry is an effort to organize the chaos, but the registry requires
support by both users and the software developers.


Meanwhile the Finnish computer scientist Linus Torvalds and hundreds of Unix
programmers on the Internet have been busy unifying the Unix market. His group has
implemented the Linux version of Unix for Intel hardware platforms.


If you insist on paying for it, commercial versions of Linux cost a third of what Win95
costs. But Linux does much more than Win95. As Unix, it’s more of a competitor to NT
with support for multithreading and multitasking and TCP/IP networking. Yet NT is more
than 10 times the price of Linux.


As Digital Equipment Corp. and other Unix vendors leave this market segment, Linux may
become the only alternative to Microsoft.  


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.

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