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back to article OS/2 a quarter century on: Why IBM lost out and how Microsoft won

Twenty-five years ago IBM unveiled its master plan to reclaim the PC industry. In November of that year the first floppy diskettes of OS/2 version 1.0 trickled out. Microsoft had co-developed the software with Big Blue. The world would look very different if the plan succeeded. And the world was already changing significantly. …

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Trollface

companies

Corporations biggest weaknesses tend to be they are composed of a group of people. In general in most groups over the long term the group ends up being dumber than any single member of the group. People may think they are predators but in general they tend act more like herd animals.

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Windows

Re: companies

Over the long term? Most groups I've seen don't take long at all to be reduced to about half the IQ of the dumbest member.

Windows User because, well, you know...

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The best thing you can say about OS/2 and PS/2...

...is that it got IBM off the steering wheel of the PC. IBM took forever to approve or change things and when they did it was often not an improvement (what was wrong with the 25pin serial port?).

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Happy

History repeats itself

But now with Android looking like the chippy usurper, whilst Microsoft act out the part of bumbling giant unable to accept the challenge to its cash cow (and acting it with some gusto).

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Anonymous Coward

Who will save us?

A penguin called Tux, dressed up as a green robot.

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Devil

Re: Who will save us?

Yeah, because if you can't trust Google with your personal data on a networked device, ... er, wait.

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> There was no API to speak of

What? I dispute that. An API is just a documented collection of calls that Application Programmers can use to Interface with something - in this case the OS. Even CP/M had an API. It wasn't a protected mode OS, true, but it certainly had an API.

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LDS
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Yes, but it was a really basic API with an assembler interface (fill some CPU register, call INT 21h). Moreover besides file management functions most of the DOS API where slow and mostly useless, thereby most applications bypassed them and talked to the hardware directly, especially for screen management and printing.

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Oh I wouldn't deny that by today's standards it was basic. But to outright claim there wasn't an API is wrong.

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Meh

Sort of no API

Do not overlook the refusal of M$ to allow IBM to access the Win32 API from OS/2. The most they ever allowed was Win32s. This meant that "old" Windows applications would run happily on OS/2, but the new exciting stuff that developers were churning out for Win95 et seq wouldn't. Thus OS/2 users were denied use of newer Windows apps. Third-party efforts to work around this obstacle concentrated in a project called "Odin" which had some boff programmers but was desperately undersupported. The parallel effort in the Linux camp, "Wine", has notched up many successes and continues to thrive, allowing one to run many Windows programs almost natively on e.g. Ubuntu. This lack of extensive applications support turned many OS/2 users off the platform, yours truly included, with many regrets since OS/2 was so far ahead of anything coming out of Redmond. Even now, as I alternate between Linux and Windows 7, I hanker after what OS/2 was, and long for what the OS/2 ecosystem could have become.

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Re: Sort of no API

A bit more detail on this, and perhaps there are similar responses to this article already - I haven't trudged through them all yet.

I'm old enough to have been a user of OS/2 2.0 and above. The constant compatibility issue was the MS kept changing DLLs and/or APIs to make OS/2 incompatible, and unable to run "older" (Fix-pack) versions of MS Word, Excel, etc. IBM constantly had to rush out an update to re-enable compatibility. Amazingly (ha ha) there was another urgent Windows update that used a new DLL that made OS/2 fail when dealing with MS documents. Who would have guessed?

Clearly, MS was blocking IBM from competition, and IBM being the "giant" wasn't able to complain about the upcoming MS, as it would have shown weakness. Catch-22, and we all lost out, at least back then. OS/2 was vastly superior to Windows, at the time. Whether Windows development exceeded what IBM's development might have been with OS/2 remains to be seen.

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Headmaster

Absolute rip off, but not a toy

"The Amiga and ST made the Mac look like an overpriced toy"? Please. Do your research. Overpriced? Yes. Toy? No.

The Amiga came closest to delivering on that claim, the ST not even close. The only area that the ST could best the Mac in was in support for colour - in terms of storage and memory, the Mac had it licked. The Amiga added pre-emptive multi-tasking but, without memory protection, that isn't much of an advantage. It just means that you crash sooner, and lose more work when you do.

In 1987, Apple released the Mac II - and whupped the competition with much faster CPUs, more colour with support for higher resolution screens, far more memory and better support for hard disks. When A/UX came out (in 1988) it also delivered on pre-emptive multitasking with memory protection.

How am I so certain of these facts? Well, back in the day, when I was a student and the world, Mac, Amiga, ST and all were all fresh and new, and the 286 seemed like a hot processor, I needed to get a 68000 packing machine for assembly coding. Besides, some of my friends had 286s and my 8086 powered Compaq Deskpro was looking a little tired. So I considered the ST, and I considered the Amiga, and decided that I wanted something with more power and an internal hard drive. So I sacrified colour on the altar of the 68030 powered SE/30 (very few Amigas were made with more power than that, and no Atari STs as far as I know).

True, the Mac cost an absolute bloody fortune - but its power was undeniable. I still have it. It's got 32M RAM, and it runs the aforementioned A/UX. It still worked too, last time I tried it a couple of years ago.

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Trollface

Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

>True, the Mac cost an absolute bloody fortune - but its power was undeniable. I still have it. It's got 32M RAM, and it runs the aforementioned A/UX. It still worked too, last time I tried it a couple of years ago.

Pretty much summed up Apple for the last generation or so but I am afraid Apple will continue to cost a bloody fortune but the quality will sink until its just another manufacturer. IE it will get Sony's disease now its old guard is starting to pass.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

For the price of an SE/30,couldn't you have had a Sun or Apollo 680x0 workstation?

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Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

You're certain of something but they aren't facts.

Atari and Commodore produced models with everything up to the 68040. They were after different market segments. Because Apple was targeting a much higher price point and margins it could afford to be first out the gate with the latest from Motorola. But if it was about something you could afford and use Atari And commodore had much to offer.

At the time the SE/30 was introduced, Amiga 2000 models with 68020s and hard drives were readily available. The Mac was the better choice if you had something like desktop publishing in mind. But I was working at game developer Cinemaware then and we had a very early Mac II unit. We naturally wanted info on details that would aid in game development for this fast and colorful machine. When I called Apple and explained what we wanted to do I was essentially told "Steve doesn't like games on his computers." My feeling was, "Screw you, too, Steve."

I've avoided Apple products ever since and have never felt I was missing much from outside the RDF.

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Go

Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

We used an Atari Mega ST 4 in the research group I worked for. With a Spectre GCR emulator it ran MacOS software about 20% faster than a Mac would, and on a significantly bigger screen too.

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Big Brother

Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

Before trashing other people's recollections, I'd recommend you make sure your personal opinions match basic recorded history before passing them as "facts" as well:

Steve Jobs had been long gone from Apple before the Macintosh II was even a product. If anything Apple had a proactive approach towards games during the 80s, both the Apple II and Macintosh had relatively healthy gaming ecosystems back then, or at least they did in the USA. Hell, since you claim to have worked for Cinemaware, I remember playing Defender of the Crown on my Apple II as a young wee lad. So the claim that you interacted back then with someone at Apple who talked about "Steve" like they knew him, and Apple having any official negative stance towards games being developed on/for their platform(s) seem rather... "odd."

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Linux

Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

Sorry the Mac was a toy, an expensive one at that. The Macs had task switching not a real multui-tasking OS. The Amiga would run circles in tems of performance and graphics ( it, as you may recall, had specicalized procecessors for graphics which off-loaded a lot of cycles from the main processor). The mac was a desendant from Lisa (which was way overpriced), and Lisa was a desendant from the Xerox Star. As usual, Apple was master of re-packaging, not innovation.

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Meh

Windows 3.0

The first time I saw Windows 3.0 was during my first week in university. Being a long-time Amiga user, I laughed my ass off at what I saw was a ham-fisted attempt to recreate that which had already existed (and worked better) for almost a decade. Even the name, "Windows" was a riot...talk about stating the obvious while missing the point, as there was more to most GUI operating systems of the day than just "windows." The nerdy business student who was showing me his new toy was exactly the kind of person Microsoft was counting on...a "person of faith" who had longsuffered through DOS and was willing to ignore the very, very frequent UAEs of Microsoft's pretend "operating system."

But anyway, the joke was on me as the crash-ridden piece of junk actually took over the world, mostly propelled by the nerdy business types. Or was it...after C= bit the dust dragging Amiga along with it, I discovered a little upstart called Linux in 1993 and never looked back. SLS users represent!

Speaking of journalists, during the dark days of Microsoft's rise to power i used to enjoy reading Will Zachmann, one of the few voices who dared criticize Microsoft. Wonder what ever happened to him, he was a voice in the wilderness for a time. Were it not for Will we wouldn't know about Steve "Barkto" Ballmer and his astroturfing brigade on C$.

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Anonymous Coward

Some things have changed, maybe not in the way everyone wanted...

Snip from the article:

Thirdly, the press and pundits largely wanted Microsoft to succeed, and IBM to fail. This wasn’t through any great affection for Microsoft at all. But the clones had created a thriving market and nobody wanted IBM to control both the hardware and the software industry again.

s/Microsoft/Google/g

s/IBM/Microsoft/g

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LDS
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Re: Some things have changed, maybe not in the way everyone wanted...

"nobody wanted IBM to control both the hardware and the software"

Yep, it was what Apple tried to achieve in the mobile market...

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Big Brother

Great last line

My friends tell me Microsoft will save us from IBM. But who will save us from Microsoft?

Or From Google. Microsoft is beginning to look benevolent. If they'd only kill the Ribbon and the User Interface Formerly called Metro for anything bigger than 5".

We're doomed really.

... Wanders off and looks at RiscOS on PI again.

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Anonymous Coward

Those screenshots look so old now, although it's worth remembering that less than 20 years ago a lot of businesses were still using green screen Amstrads and dot matrix printers.

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Microsoft won the way they know - dishonesty and fraud.

I was at the initial "OS/2 Developer's Conference" 1987, but it was no such thing.

In reality it was a Ballmer and MZ-led evangelical Windows pyramid-scheme marketing Conference. Gates, who had promised to appear, was always going to be there "soon". He never deigned, of course.

Ballmer's biggest lie was that Microsoft had written a program - always nearly finished - that would convert source code written for Windows to run on OS/2. He actually had most of the attendees believing "Write for Windows today, and you're writing for the OS/2 of tomorrow." Completely unfinished API notwithstanding.

At the conference end when they announced "free copies of Windows 1.03 for everyone!" 95% of crowd was cheering. Only the IBMers and a few of us who had dealt with Microsoft in the past knew that we'd been suckered into paying a multi-$1000 conference fee for a $100 toy program and the opportunity to help Gates become the world's richest psychopath.

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Re: Microsoft won the way they know - dishonesty and fraud.

Pchao.

Gates is certainly not a "psychopath" and 1987, Gates and Ballmer were actually fully behind OS/2 and believed what they were saying.

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Re: Microsoft won the way they know - dishonesty and fraud.

Didn't Micrografx Mirrors [more or less] allow Windows source to be compiled into an OS/2 application? Though I'll concede it was meant to be a stopgap emulation-ish layer rather than a tool that'd actually go in and adjust your source so that you were subsequently working on a native OS/2 application.

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Re: Ballmer's biggest lie ... convert source code written for Windows to run on OS/2

Tam Lin - you are the biggest fraud and liar here. What you tried to talk about is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_Libraries_for_OS/2, sucker

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Happy

@Tarn Lin

"Ballmer's biggest lie was that Microsoft had written a program - always nearly finished - that would convert source code written for Windows to run on OS/2"

Hahahahahahahahaha.

What developers will believe of MS *never* gets old. The did the same with the Windows 95 /NT porting process. "It's just like the Win95 API"

" and the opportunity to help Gates become the world's richest psychopath."

Ouch.

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Re: Ballmer's biggest lie ... convert source code written for Windows to run on OS/2

Well, this relates only to 16-bit Windows libraries. For my remarks on Win32, see above.

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Awesome article

Really enjoyed this one, and can wholeheartedly agree.

And even though I personally still consider OS/2 Warp (3) & Merlin (4) to be the more extensive environments at that time I also think one cannot deny that Microsoft has done one very important thing right with its Windows environment (apart from the many mishaps and other ickyness which also occurred): the strict design.

Sure; here and there Windows can be picked up as a little bit messy, but its not as if they had to re-design the whole OS structure time and time again (although they did do a few kernel rewrites). With that I'm not referring to the GUI which has seen many changes over the years (including the most heard annoyance regarding programs and options being moved to new places) but the underlying structure.

When Microsoft started with, for example, their management console (mmc.exe) they designed it in such a way that it could be extended, which also happened over the years. And even though it sits in the background and most end users have no clue what it is, the msc "management files" still sit in their comfy home of system32, as they have been from the start.

Microsoft has done a lot of things wrong, and bluffed their way through several encounters, but I also think its fair to state that they managed to set up a rather solid foundation. Which I think may very have added to the eventual success of Windows.

Although OS/2 was obviously better :-)

Seriously though: OS/2 Warp Server (which I kinda missed in the articles) IMO really was way ahead of its time. User management? You could do that the same way you setup folders; from the templates section. Which would also give you a very easy way to pre-customize your objects before creating new ones.

iow: check the properties of an object in the "templates" folder and customize it to your needs. For example; you could set the folder type to "pictures", thus if you created a folder by dragging its object from the templates folder it would always create a folder which view type would be set to "pictures".

Now imagine this same functionality with user accounts. What's that? Annoying to drag an object with the mouse, then having to go to the keyboard to fill in the details, then back to the mouse again to drag in another object (if you had to create several) ?

Indeed; that's why there were also shortcuts available. No need to have your hands leave the keyboard, at all.

aaah, the good ole days. Sure; user management on Windows isn't bad either. But try to setup a default user profile /without/ reading the help screen. It can be found and done, but hardly as easy as "Oh, a user template amongst all the others? Lets customize it!".

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Meh

Re: Awesome article

I'm not totally convinced by that. There are some pretty fugly and dark corners to the Win32 API. Then there's the backends of SharePoint and Exchange both of which have had to undergo significant changes with new versions suggesting that the Office guys at least aren't much good at forward thinking. And the probable icing on the cake from those guys has to MAPI and friends. Or the whole Exchange communication bit - one release introduces CAS arrays to solve a problem and the next release gets rid of them again.

My thoughts on MS are that they are generally quite poor at design. They really don't seem to be much good at orthogonality.

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Unhappy

Re: Awesome article

"Sure; user management on Windows isn't bad either."

I think you need to alter the grammar a little.

"User management *eventually* became as good as other platforms could deliver *years* earlier once MS had wiped out the competition and decided to add some of the things it had not bothered to install in the first place"

As someone once observed "If the Devil ever beat God he would have to take over some of Gods duties."

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Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

Microsoft has been nasty to various competitors and 'allies' over the years. Although I find it hard to feel any sympathy at all for IBM - who managed to be a nasty monopolist for a lot longer than MS ever were...

But you're being unfair on the modern MS. I've not seen any evidence that they've done anything to knife Nokia. They may not be developing WinPhone as fast as Nokia would like, but they're not gaining from dragging their feet - and improving no slower than Android or iOS did. Nokia are in the shit because of consistent piss-poor management over the last 5-10 years. They've had some great innovation, and failed to bring most of it to market. They couldn't even organise themselves to improve the Symbian UX for years.

As for Surface, they've not really priced it to kill their OEMs. They've not gone into either phone or PC manufacturing yet, nor announced same. So it's not so much a stab-wound as a small pinprick.

They're a big corporation. They're not nice, or fluffy. Neither are Google, IBM, Apple or any of the others. It's not their job to be. The idea that you can be safer in a relationship with Google is laughable.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

You may safely add to the list one more victim: Tux, our beloved penguin bleeding to death after being cut at the throat by the razor-sharp UEFI Secure boot.

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Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

...while the major Linux vendors like Redhat and Ubuntu stand applauding on the sidelines.

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Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

"You may safely add to the list one more victim: Tux, our beloved penguin bleeding to death after being cut at the throat by the razor-sharp UEFI Secure boot."

Tux world is a circular firing squad. Doesn't need any help from MS to fail. Just keep on pumping out 800 flavors to confuse the market.

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Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

>@"I ain't Spartacus" you know nothing if you think Microsoft have not used their trojan horse, Elop, to destroy Nokia in order to pick the corpse of its patents

And the Nokia board and shareholders are complicit then. Still you know nothing if you think Nokia's problems only started when Elop was hired.

>If you think OEMs are happy about Surface (MS doesn't have to pay its own licence fees) then think again

No the OEMs largely ignored most the Windows 8 hype seeking to avoid another vista type disaster and Microsoft will pay the price for it.

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Terminator

Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

"Tux world is a circular firing squad. Doesn't need any help from MS to fail. Just keep on pumping out 800 flavors to confuse the market."

As the unofficial dictator of Tux World let me say," We are not selling, marketing, coercing, conning, finagling or otherwise trying to push Linux on the world. It's there, it's varied, it's free for the taking. And personally, I don't give a fuck if you don't take it because I make a living by other means.

All hail Tux!!!

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Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

@"I ain't Spartacus" you know nothing if you think Microsoft have not used their trojan horse, Elop, to destroy Nokia in order to pick the corpse of its patents, whilst removing a competitor.

Eadon,

I don't buy into conspiracy theories without some actual evidence. Nokia have a board of directors, who appointed Elop. Presumably they asked him what his plans were going to be? If not, he presumably asked them if they were happy before going public? HP's board sacked Apotheker for saying that he was going to destroy their PC business. That option was open to Nokia's board. They didn't take it, they aren't Microsoft appointees - so at this point your conspiracy theory falls apart. Unless you believe Microsoft have invented the mind control ray. In which case how come they've failed to use it on the people who hate Windows 8...

Symbian was thriving and growing until Elop killed it with his suicidal "Burning Platform" memo. It's a myth that Nokia were doing badly, they were doing pretty well, far better than Microsoft ever did in mobile.

Microsoft did pretty bloody well in mobile back in the day. They did the same as Apple, going from nothing to around half of smartphone sales in just a few years. If they hadn't sat on their laurels and stopped improving Windows Mobile they might have still been a main contender. Rather like Nokia with Symbian.

It's too much to go into here, but I saw a piece by an analyst who was a fan of Symbian (and not of Elop) and even his figures made Symbian look bad. Sure it was growing in sales terms, as its share of the fast growing smartphone market dropped - admittedly very slowly. But, whilst Symbian sales were growing, profits per handset were dropping. And they weren't that good to start with. They were only making a few euros profit per handset. Samsung and Apple make huge margins on their high-end phones. If you sell 50 million handsets at €10 profit each your business is much riskier than someone selling 5 million at €100 profit.

It may be that Nokia were actually selling a few, high margin, top-end phones, and then a ton of Symbian 'feature phones' at break-even.

Nokia's other problem has been that Chinese dumbphone manufacturers have finally managed to to beat Nokia on price - something Nokia had managed to avoid for years by brilliant manufacturing and supply chain management - even though their labour costs were much higher. Given this, it was sensible to assume that the €100-€200 feature-phone/cheap smartphone market might be about to go the same way. At which point manufacturing 50 million loss-making handsets becomes a horrible liability.

they [Nokia] are a humiliated hardware arm of Microsoft's Win 8 division. If you do not think Microsoft did that, you are weird in what you think, like most Microsoft apologists here.

No, not weird in what I think. I've just thought about it with as little prejudice as I can manage. If new evidence turns up to show MS have executed a brilliant 'Manchurian Candidate' strategy, I'll change my mind. Given how un-brilliant their current management appear to be, I'll stick to the cock-up (rather than conspiracy) theory. Particularly given how piss-poor Nokia's management have shown themselves to be over the last decade. Yes, they've had some great technology. But they've failed to even bring most of it to market, let alone make profits from it.

Whether Elop was right is impossible to say. But the idea that he took a successful company and ruined it is ridiculous. Nokia had been under-performing for years, and the market was finally catching up on their lead in all areas. Something had to change. Given they had nothing 'market ready' to show for all their huge R&D spending, it was either Android or Win Pho. Neither very attractive choices, but that's all they had left.

As for Surface, who knows? MS OEM partners don't seem to be able to innovate their way out of a wet paper bag, so MS need to either prod them or replace them. You might even argue they've stabbed Microsoft in the back, by their continual failure. If they can't keep MS happy, they'll deserve it if MS can outcompete them. They can't say they've not been warned. If it does happen, they can't claim that MS stabbed them in the back. And a knife in the chest is perfectly fair play, this is business...

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Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

Tux world is a circular firing squad. Doesn't need any help from MS to fail. Just keep on pumping out 800 flavors to confuse the market.

Heh heh, 100% correct.

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Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

>so MS need to either prod them or replace them. You might even argue they've stabbed Microsoft in the back, by their continual failure.

The OEMs dug their grave long ago when they didn't stand up to M$ about having to pay licences for every item shipped and allowing M$ to dictate to them what the windows experience should be (ie little chance for brand differences). Once they became nothing but low margin manufacturers who weren't allowed to innovate it isn't much surprise they lost the will to do so. Why innovate a product that will make Microsoft a lot more money than you. Microsoft is arguable the worst business partner in the IT world.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

>>Tux world is a circular firing squad. Doesn't need any help from MS to fail. Just keep on pumping out 800 flavors to confuse the market.

Well well, Look at all the pretty downvotes. When I say the same sort of thing I usually wind up with more. Anyway. Ive come to the conclusion that they like fragmentation because it makes them feel more elite. I think they're ridiculous, and suffer from reality distortion as bad as, if not worse than, Apple users.

I love their blamelessness too, everything wrong with Linux is always someone else's fault, generally Microsoft's.

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Re: Microsoft with knife in hand

Once they became nothing but low margin manufacturers who weren't allowed to innovate it isn't much surprise they lost the will to do so. Why innovate a product that will make Microsoft a lot more money than you.

Dell innovated, back in the day. Not on the software side, but on the ordering, supply chain, manufacturing and service side. There was a time when a Dell PC cost £50-£100 more, but you got rock-solid service and support. Dell made nicer margins, and with that and their easy customisation/ordering they got to be top dog for a while. Then they cut back on support, but kept the margins, then they lost sales and their reputation.

None of that is MS fault. Admittedly the anti-competitive stuff is. But I'm not sure that makes MS a bad partner. They may have made you dance to their tune, but like Intel, they paid 'marketing support' for it. I'm not making MS out to be a saint, they're not. But I don't think they've screwed Nokia yet (they may do in future, who knows?), and I don't think they're particularly screwing over the OEMs. There's margin to be made by offering extra stuff, if you have the imagination to try it. And since the anti-trust settlement vendors can ship with Linux, without Windows tax, and don't make massive cash from doing so. It's made little difference. The OEMs are probably worse off without the kickbacks from MS and Intel, with no greater margins, and no slush-money to keep the shareholders happy.

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Fascinating piece

Especially for someone who is just a few years too young to have been aware of it all happening at the time.

More like this (and the other historical articles that have appeared in recent times) please El Reg, the history of this industry is an interesting one.

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I expect for Microsoft to survive the next 20 years they will need to do what IBM should have done years ago and offer their OS for free or see the oems either going bust or moving away from Microsoft OS to ones where they can make more money per device by using free software.

Microsoft still has its Windows store, xbox, office software where it can make money but the OS division is on a slipper slope.

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Re: @mark 12 - MS cannot survive without its cash cows

"MS makes money from 3 things, its server and tools division, it's windows division and most of all, it's office division."

They also make money from their Mac Business Unit. And good on them, because the OS X version of Office is generally better (and often way better) than the Windows version.

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