The Evolution and Dominance of the Windows Operating System

September 21, 2010

1.0 Introduction

This paper will discuss the evolution of the Windows OS (Operating System), as well as Windows' dominance in the OS marketplace. Additionally, some rival operating systems will be discussed, followed by the author's conclusions.

2.0 Evolution of the Windows OS

When Windows 1.0 was released by Microsoft in 1985, it did not start out as a true operating system. Rather, it was an extension of MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System), which was included with every new IBM PC (and compatible). It offered users several features beyond MS-DOS, such as a graphical user interface, a variety of productivity tools and (most-importantly) the ability to switch between multiple Windows-based applications.

Windows 3.0 was released in 1990. It sold ten million copies before the release of Windows 3.1. Windows for Workgroups 3.11 was released in 1993. This release added peer-to-peer networking as well as network domain support.

Also released in 1993 was Windows NT 3.1. It was targeted at the business/enterprise market. Windows NT introduced several new features, including a 32-bit kernel, support for multiple architectures, as well as the first appearance of the NTFS (new technology file system) file system (Microsoft 2006).

The ironic part about Microsoft’s Windows NT, is that it originally started out as a part of IBM’s OS/2 operating system during a joint-venture project between the two companies. Due to a conflict of interests, the relationship between Microsoft and IBM dissolved in 1990 (Thurrott 2003). IBM finished OS/2 2.0 on their own and released it in 1992. Meanwhile, Microsoft continued work on Windows NT, releasing versions 3.5 and 4.0 in 1994 and 1996, respectively.

In 1995 Microsoft released Windows 95. It featured vast improvements in usability and Internet connectivity, as well as the Plug and Play (PnP) architecture. PnP allowed Windows to complete certain amounts of hardware configuration on its own, making the task of installing new hardware much easier. The final version of Windows 95 (version 'c') introduced support for the USB (Universal Serial Bus) interface and related devices.

Microsoft released Windows 98 in 1998 as “the first version of Windows designed for consumers” (Microsoft 2006). Windows 98 included support for DVDs as well as native USB support. Windows 98 SE (Second Edition) was released the following year. It was more-secure, more-stable, and offered improved networking features like Internet connection sharing and Internet Explorer 5.0.

During this time, Microsoft continued work on the Windows NT kernel, releasing the next version of the NT line under the name of “Windows 2000,” in the year 2000. Windows 2000 offered support for FireWire, USB, infrared and other wireless devices. The year 2000 also saw the release of Windows 2000 Server, which was designed for enterprise-level, mission-critical business applications. Windows 2000 Server was quite popular and proved to have substantial longevity with this author's company retiring their last Windows 2000 Server machine earlier this year.

The year 2000 also gave us the release of Windows Me (Millennium Edition). Windows Me had the distinction of being the last Windows OS built on the Windows 95 codebase (Microsoft 2006). Despite any new features offered by Windows Me, it was a technological disaster. Customers reported countless problems, ranging from an inability to recognize certain hardware, installation issues, and frequent BSOD (“blue screen of death”) crashes. Windows Me bears the distinction of being named on several “top worst product” lists; including being rated fourth on PCWorld’s “25 Worst tech products of all time” (Tynan 2006) and rated of sixth on CNet’s “Top 10 worst products of the decade” (Merritt 2008).

In 2001, Microsoft merged the two separate Windows products together with the release of Windows XP (“experience”). Met with mixed reviews, Windows XP initially received widespread criticism for lack of backward compatibility with several business and consumer applications. However, it was improved with service packs (upgrades) in the years that followed, and adoption of Windows XP was soon widespread. Today, Windows XP remains the most-popular desktop OS in the world, boasting a market share of 46.29% (W3 Counter 2010).

It took a while before the next desktop version of Windows would surface. In 2007, Microsoft released Windows Vista, and it was met with much hostility from the technical community. Problems ranged from Vista being unable to recognize hardware, to an inability to run Windows XP programs, and a much-criticized security model that according to Automation Access’s Andrew Grygus (Grygus 2007) “placed security responsibility right where it doesn't belong, squarely on the shoulders of the average user.”

Vista was also the first Windows OS that came natively with WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage). WGA is an anti-piracy application that would contact Microsoft's WGA servers via the Internet, verifying whether or not the user did indeed have a genuine, unique copy of Windows Vista. The problem with this system, is that if the WGA servers were down (which did occur on August 25th, 2007) any user activity that requires WGA would force the system into “reduced functionality mode” (Fisher 2007). In the end, few users upgraded to Windows Vista, and several computer stores made money by offering to re-install Windows XP on customers' machines.

Needing a “win” after the Vista debacle, Microsoft released Windows 7 in 2009. Windows 7 was warmly received, and was praised by several trade publications for it's speed, stability, and ease of installation. This author's main system dual-boots into Ubuntu 10.04 and Windows 7 (only because as a student, I was able to get a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium for $29.99 U.S.). The afore-mentioned system runs an AMD Athlon 64 X2 6400 CPU with 4 GB of RAM, and the resulting (Windows) boot times are significantly faster (average of about 50 seconds) than they were with Windows XP (routinely took several minutes). Today, Windows 7 is the second-most-popular desktop operating system in the world, with a market share of 18.37% (W3 Counter 2010).

3.0 Windows Marketplace Dominance

I believe that Windows dominance in the marketplace is due more to their marketing and legal practices than their product quality. In 2004, Microsoft settled a two-and-a-half-year legal battle with Lindows, a company that created a desktop OS based-on the Linux kernel to compete with Windows. As a part of the deal, Microsoft paid twenty million dollars (U.S.) to Lindows, who agreed to change the name of their legal entity to “Linspire” and to hand over all “Lindows”-based domain names. Today (six years later) Microsoft has more than a 90% market share of the desktop OS market, while Linspire was purchased by Xandros in 2008 and discontinued shortly there-after.

More-recently (June 2010), computer manufacturer Dell posted a “top ten list of things you should know about Ubuntu” on their website. Number six read “Ubuntu is safer than Microsoft Windows,” bearing a summary indicating that “The vast majority of viruses and spyware written by hackers are not designed to target and attack Linux” (Vaughan-Nichols 2010). A few days later, that entry was changed to read simply “Ubuntu is secure.”

While Dell has not given a definitive answer as to the reasons behind the change, several people suspect that Microsoft told Dell to alter the text. Computer World author Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols explains it by saying “I think it's pretty easy to guess: Microsoft took note of people talking about Dell saying nice things about Linux, and decided to 'have a word' with Dell. Microsoft has been pushing the computer vendors around for decades -- which is why Windows is so popular, not because Windows is better than the alternatives” (Vaughan-Nichols 2010). As an OEM (Other Equipment Manufacturer) reseller of Microsoft, it's possible that Dell was threatened (legally) with breach of contract or even with increasing the cost of the copies [of Windows] that Dell resells on their computers. Of course, we'll never really know for sure.

During the 2009 release of Windows 7, Microsoft released an “ExpertZone” training module to Best Buy employees. This module was aimed at arming Best Buy employees with answers to questions that prospective customers might ask when comparing Windows 7 to Linux (Yam 2009). While the module may have had a few valid points, most of it was embellishment, and few points were completely inaccurate. This serves as yet another example of Microsoft's marketing tactics.

4.0 Rival Operating Systems

In a market where the companies not named Microsoft are fighting for the remaining seven to nine percent share, it's hard to say that Windows has any true competitors. The lead competitor is Apple's Mac OS X. But due largely to incomparable hardware, it is difficult to measure OS X against any version of Windows. Also, Macintosh is a niche market. It is likely that most consumers who buy a Mac are not even considering buying a PC (Personal Computer, Windows based) instead. Macintosh OS X is currently the fourth-most-popular desktop operating system in the world, with a market share of 7.08% (W3 Counter 2010).

Another desktop OS alternative to Windows, is Linux. Linux is a free and open source OS that was developed by University of Helsinki student Linus Torvalds in 1991 (Linux Online, 2007). Linux is based on the UNIX OS, and offers a solution that brings a high degree of functionality, stability and security. Author Eric S. Raymond (Raymond 2000) describes the open source approach behind Linux, by saying “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow...I dub this: Linus's Law.” Essentially, it is Linux's community-based development model that ensures its quality.

As just about anyone can create their own OS based on the Linux Kernel, there are literally hundreds of distributions or “flavors” of Linux available. Some of the more popular flavors are Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Fedora, Debian and Slackware, just to name a few. Proprietary or non-free flavors of Linux also exist, such as Red Hat and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

Linux is the 5th-most used desktop OS in the world, with a 1.52% market share. The problem with Linux, is that the early versions were difficult to use and therefore were mainly utilized by programmers and hobbyists. The “difficult to use” tag still follows Linux around, despite the fact that some flavors, like Ubuntu, have become very user-friendly.

5.0 Conclusion

It is this author's conclusion, that the dominance of Windows in the desktop OS marketplace is not due to the fact that it is a superior product. The accomplishments of Windows are due to Microsoft's ability to create and take advantage of market opportunities.

Despite the fact that previous versions of Windows have caused significant problems for users, they keep going back. The bottom line, is that there are alternatives to Windows. Microsoft just happens to be better at hiding those alternatives, than they are at creating a high-quality OS product.

Aaron Ploetz


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