The Finer Points in the Open Systems Debate

The beauty of open systems is that anyone can claim to sell one

P> The question of what is an open system will always be with us. Charles R. Morris, co-author of the influential book, "How the West Can Win in a Post IBM World," said the question of open systems arises every time a system reaches a new nook. "As the technology progresses, the question of open systems will always be there, at every turn, at every layer," Morris said from his Manhattan study.

"The battle for the consumer desktop is over," said Morris. "Windows has won. The interesting battle is on the Internet servers." Morris said the Internet systems architecture is generally more open. "The question now is how open operating systems will become. Clearly UNIX is under a lot of pressure from Windows NT. It's not clear where the control of the operating system is."

Morris suggested that some of the UNIX death dirge needs squelching. "It's interesting that IBM has been making a comeback in mainframes and servers," said Morris, who suggested the death of IBM in his book. "I wouldn't have thought they had a chance of doing that several years ago. You have to be careful about these things."

On the surface the challenge posed by the proprietary Microsoft NT may seem a blow to open systems. After all, the idea of open systems is having a myriad of hardware configurations work with each other on a portable common operating system. It's like an open happy hour where anyone can come in and talk with anyone else. Proprietary systems are more like private clubs: Membership comes at a price, and you belly up at the bar with fellow patrons who paid their dues and closed the door to those who didn't.

Obviously, proprietary often leads to insularity. When it's members only, and the software provider is making money off the closed-in members, who worries about improving performance?

UNIX, which for the most part runs the Internet on reduced instruction set computing servers, makes it the most prevalent and spectacular example of the need for a "universal" if "ungainly" operating system. Proprietary just doesn't fit the unique world of the Internet, where the hottest program -- Netscape -- is free. Microsoft, way late in developing an Internet strategy, still seems at sea when it comes to making money on the Internet, which is, after all, a great threat to packaged delivery of commercial software. Who needs a shipment from UPS when the software can be had through a dial-up Internet account?

Government open system keeps proprietary Huns outside the moat

Although it may seem reports of UNIX's death are greatly exaggerated in the real world of Fortune 500 computing, in the Fortune One company of the world, Uncle Sam Inc., open systems are here to stay.

In fact, Uncle Sam likes open systems so much he created his own. The government's flavor of UNIX is called POSIX -- and it's everywhere a government server is. But is the government operating system's unanimity that good for the commercial market? Is it good for innovation?

Open systems author Morris doesn't think so. "Usually the further government stays away from these things the faster things go. Whenever public bodies set standards, they always set them at the lowest common denominator." Morris pointed to the auto market as an example. "If we had kept out Japanese cars, we would still have to change our cars every two years, and auto workers in Detroit would be making $25 an hour. In short, markets will be better served if the UNIX or NT question isn't settled."

Digital Equipment Corp. of Maynard, Mass., for one, thinks POSIX/UNIX is good for competition -- good for Digital -- and good for the federal government. "The government is for open systems because open systems provide interpretability and portability of applications at the source code level," said Hill Carter, senior consultant at Digital Equipment Corp.'s Federal Government Region in Greenbelt, Md.

"By specifying open systems, the government can actually increase competition and thereby decrease the cost of systems over time. As far as the government is concerned, that's the history of open systems and POSIX," Carter said.

In the early '80s, a handful of vendors, Digital included, sold programs to the federal government in different flavors of UNIX -- different but not quite proprietary. The result was government workers could not, for example, move a UNIX program from an HP server to a Digital server. Government programmers, who were usually contractors, had to rewrite everything to do that. "The government got smart to this and said this isn't a very good idea," said Carter.

The Open Range of Systems: No Friend to Fence-Loving Microsoft

From very early on, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has done his best to protect his own huge ranch on the range of open systems. The fence is proprietary controls, and Gates wants that fence maintained. With consumers and companies being charged to get at the products inside, Gates has become the richest American ever by keeping the "fantastic software" inside the fence.

But Gates and his company were famously caught off guard when the Internet grew spontaneously on the fertile plain outside the fenced-in camp Microsoft.

Gates, concentrating on tending his cash cows inside the proprietary fence, didn't see that new cattle were being fed on the natural grass of the free Internet range outside.

A vision of the future without Microsoft fences has arisen. As more companies and consumers find their fill of software and services on the Internet rather than in vacuum-packed boxes from Microsoft, an open, Microsoft-free vision of the future seems more and more possible. This vision sees a PC market filled with $500 "dumb" terminals run by an operating system -- yes, UNIX -- and applications on the Internet rather than on a hard drive filled with Microsoft operating systems and software.

Could the Microsoft ranch end up like an abandoned farm? Don't count on it, but like in the days of the open and wild West, the open, wild Internet allows everyone to ride the open range. This, like the open West, probably will not last.

The dumb terminal, open range of free services and software on the Internet is the low-end story of open systems threat to Microsoft. At the high end, if SCO's open UNIX can contain the market share of Microsoft's proprietary Windows NT, maybe even Gates would want to cash out on the Redmond, Wash.-based company. But don't count on it, because the marketeers at Microsoft, like the Huns, keep coming.

The Future: POSIX, UNIX and NT

Could UNIX do to Microsoft what Microsoft did to Apple? If the answer is yes, that would be the biggest open irony of the computer age.

It seems certain that POSIX will be around perhaps as long as the federal government. Microsoft has spent an estimated $2 billion to $4 billion developing and promoting NT to keep the Hun-like pressure on UNIX. Windows NT isn't going away. It's coming in waves.

Yet with the deep, historical penetration UNIX has on the high server end, and its compatibility with legacy systems, Microsoft will certainly raid UNIX market share -- but it will be tough for the NT Huns to sack UNIX entirely.

On the other hand, if The Santa Cruz Operation and its partner Hewlett-Packard successfully blend the flavors of UNIX under a slick graphical interface, that new UNIX may do to Microsoft in the late 1990s what Microsoft did to Apple Computer in the late 1980s in the desktop market; that is, take a successful user interface and copy it enough to exploit the intuitive reflexes of users who are used to a slicker graphical interface.

Yes, that would be an open irony, but the irony is that UNIX vendors have been trying to do that for years.

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