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Computer Operating Systems - A Primer

Furniture World Magazine


Operating Systems, Monopolies, and the National Highway System

An operating system is a program that allows computers to run application programs such as word processors, spreadsheets, accounting, and database managers. Microsoft started out with the MS-DOS operating system, which for a while was just one operating system among many (e.g., Unix, Apple/Macintosh, CP/M and Concurrent CP/M, and TRS-DOS). Applications for these operating systems were available from many different companies. A person could choose to buy one of several competing operating systems, and again choose from among many competing application programs.

Microsoft gained market dominance for its operating system as a result of its strategic partnership with IBM and IBM's popular desktop PC. The CP/M and Concurrent CP/M operating systems dropped first, then TRS-DOS and finally Apple/Macintosh all but disappeared from business desktop computing. The Unix operating system remained the system of choice for large, multi-user mainframe computers (currently eighty percent of the world's data is stored on Unix systems), but it was too sophisticated and demanding to run on the slow, PC-based desktop hardware that was available during the 1980's and very early 90's.

Once Microsoft gained market dominance for its desktop PC operating system, it gradually choked off competition in the applications software market by throwing roadblocks in the way of other company's products and by bundling inexpensive versions of its own applications with its operating system. Every time Microsoft came out with a new version of its operating system, it made sure the road was smooth for its own products, but full of potholes and detours for competing products.

As Microsoft was busy gaining a monopoly stranglehold on desktop operating systems and applications, the Unix community was busy developing the Internet. The Linux operating system is a version of Unix specifically designed for, and by means of, the Internet. More web sites run on Linux than on any other operating system. Modern Pentium-based desktop computers now have the capacity and speed to support Unix/Linux systems that serve hundreds of users.

To deal with the Internet, Microsoft came out with its Internet Explorer, a web browser application package that competed with Netscape Navigator and other web browsers designed to allow desktop computers to access the Internet. But Microsoft again used its same successful tactics to eliminate its competition here, and that's when the Justice Department sought and won a monopoly judgment against Microsoft.

An operating system can be compared to a national highway system. Application software would then be analogous to the cars that run on the highways. The Internet can be thought of as a super-fast system of signs, maps, directories and cell phones that can get you from any point on the road to your desired destination. Microsoft first took over the highway system, turning it into a vast, monolithic toll-way; then they took over all the car dealers and manufacturers; and finally, by attempting to control the gateway to the Internet, they tried to control our access to information and ideas.

Paul Hooverson is Chief Software Architect, EasyChair Software, a supplier of software solutions to furniture retailers.