The Measure of a Platform

In Determined Defiance of a Loss of Identity and the Encroachment of Windows

By Michael Webb, Editor-in-Chief, MikeWebb@CompuServe.COM

Computers have continued to become more popular as fixtures on desktops throughout much of the world, and yet these days, there is less "room at the top" than ever. Everybody who is non-"Wintel" is feeling the pinch. It is enough to lead one to ask, just where is the computer industry going?

Years ago, it was difficult to keep track of the number of options open to computer buyers. The various Apples and Commodores comprised most of the home computer industry, while the IBM PC was gaining recognition as a business platform. Plus others like CP/M's, Sinclairs, and Ataris diversified options further. The Macintosh and Amiga soon entered the scene and offered some new higher-end technology.

But today...? The older ones (Apples, Commodores, etc.) are gone forever, at least from the forefront of the industry. The Amiga is widely-rumored to be dead, and although there seems to be hope for a comeback, at this moment, it might as well not even exist, at least as far as the computer industry as a whole is concerned. IBM could have upstaged Microsoft with OS/2 Warp, but instead, everybody waited for Windows 95, and Warp became a niche market OS. The Macintosh has suffered greater alienation than ever before from various software vendors and service providers, while its users have become concerned. Even the grand old juggernaut Unix is losing out in some cases to Windows NT for the big server systems.

Clearly, then, we have a potential dilemma on our hands: yes, the Amiga is superior technology, and should be the number one platform in the world right now; nothing comes close to matching the multitasking power and efficiency of its OS, and its entire architecture is still remarkable in its high level of integration and capability. But it would seem that nothing is safe anymore from the seemingly inevitable infringement of Windows. Yes, say what you will, Amiga users, but Windows 95 is a very capable and usable OS, with a good deal of power. It is also the single most asinine piece of software I have ever seen in that it is user-antagonistic, non-intuitive, not the least bit object-oriented, and unbelievably draining on system resources (for Windows NT, and probably Windows 97, take all of that and at least double it). Windows makes the hardware on which it runs look much slower than it is. This is the future of computing? Indeed. Where do I want to go today? Back to the 1980's, if this is how it's going to be!

The Path to Today

It's easy to see, in some ways, why Wintel (an appropriate term, as it would seem that only Intel and Microsoft will be left standing after the dust settles) has become so dominant. In the early days, IBM meant everything, and MS rode Big Blue's coattails to the top, pretending to be rather innocent and harmless along the way. And while many of us like to say nasty things about Bill Gates, there are documented actions he has taken that could easily be labeled "unethical" at best; a rather obscure example is the deal he (and perhaps some immediate associates) negotiated with many early PC makers, by which they had to pay Microsoft a royalty for every computer they sold, whether it had MS-DOS software on it or not. This is only one example. There's no question Gates is a shrewd businessman, but how far is too far?

To paraphrase a keen observation by a fellow member of the Binghamton Amiga Users Group, both IBM and MS benefited from choice of names. Why does "PC" have to mean "IBM-Compatible"? An Amiga is a personal computer, is it not? But it's not a PC. From day one, they laid the seeds of exclusion. What does "DOS" make you think of? Chances are, it's MS-DOS. Not AmigaDOS; AmigaDOS isn't AmigaDOS until you prepend "Amiga" to the word "DOS." So the only "real" DOS is MS-DOS? AmigaDOS is just a cheap imitation? Or at least consumers may have been led to believe. And what about Windows? The Amiga has windows, but it doesn't have Windows. The same holds true for the Mac. If the only "real" windows are Windows windows, does that mean these other things are useless rectangular regions of the video display? I'm surprised those guys didn't steal "floppy drive" while they were at it. Seriously, though, advertising can have a profound effect upon consumers, and if a company manages to associate a fairly generic term with a specific product, it certainly can't hurt in their attempts at dominance of the market.

As I mentioned earlier, for all its faults, Windows is a capable OS, attractive to many beginning computer users. Probably the biggest reason is that it comes with more software than you can shake a stick at, and has a very bright, flashy interface. A buyer of Windows 95 can start doing a whole lot of things without buying a single piece of software (and even back in the Windows 3.1 days, this was largely the case). What can beginning Amiga users do with a basic Amiga system? I suppose you could write a letter with Ed or MEmacs and then print it, and with odd use of IconEdit, you've got a little paint program of sorts; plus, you can even build "virtual applications" if you're good with ARexx. But what else? Well, that's about it. Fortunately, Amigas these days include some very nice software packages. Still, there's a difference between "bundled software" and "OS-supplied utilities." Windows is the king of that. Sure, it leaves an absolute mess on your hard disk, but do most entry level computer users ever see it? It hums along nicely...well, until some problem develops itself. But that's not supposed to happen...

And what is this with Intel? Motorola has been manufacturing superior microprocessors for all modern time. The 68000 gave programmers many multi-purpose registers and "wide open spaces" in memory; the 8088 gave them aggravation. The 80x86 processors have gotten a bit better in those respects through the years, but some of those early architectural "features" still linger in some form. Today, Motorola's PowerPC technology continues the 680x0 series's tradition of intelligent engineering, combined with incredible raw power. And yet Intel still continues to dominate. Is 8088 too much at the heart of the PC world for a change? Or is it something else? One must wonder how things would have been if IBM had used the 68000 from day one.

You would think that superior technology would eventually triumph. We Amiga users feel fairly well assured that had Commodore marketed and promoted the platform to any degree, it would have taken over the market. Can we be so sure? We'll never know now, but analogies exist in the form of other platforms that, today, are struggling.

How Have the Others Done?: A Look at Some Platforms Besides the Amiga


The Macintosh was almost the Amiga's sister, in some ways. Sharing many conceptual and architectural features, the two even followed similar paths of evolution, for a time. The similarities are almost uncanny: 680x0 processors, a fully graphical interface based on the "visual file system" (versus Windows's "configured icon groups") philosophy, a multimedia orientation, and even the Trashcan (or "Intel Inside", as I call it), to name a few. And yet there are differences; the MacOS still cannot truly multitask, the Amiga has better video capabilities, the Amiga's OS is a good deal faster, and while more efficient than Windows, Mac apps have a bit more of that memory-hogging tendency characteristic of PC's than Amigas. Still, the two platforms are remarkably similar.

While Commodore did next to nothing, Apple was busy infiltrating schools everywhere with numerous Apple II's, and later Macintoshes. While Apple marketed their Mac as a computer for all novices, Commodore...well, just didn't market at all. As a result, the Mac got fairly well-entrenched, while the Amiga attracted a small niche audience (it did manage, however, to become very important to graphics and video experts and professionals everywhere, but that still isn't the attraction for most computer users). There never really was any question as to whether the Mac was accepted; the question was always "Mac or PC" when one went looking for software. If availability of software is a good gauge of a platform's "health," the Mac must be in fairly good condition, as there are many applications written for it by major developers, including Microsoft and Netscape.

More recently, however, Macintosh users have begun to feel the crunch of an industry moving more and more to the Wintel "standard." This is evidenced by a number of trends, including a prevailing notion that the Macintosh is a dying platform, but probably more strikingly by the online services. Both America Online and CompuServe Information Services recently upgraded their interface software to version 3.0 (wherein CompuServe changed itself to CompuServe Interactive), and nowhere was there to be seen a Macintosh version, at least at first. It was strictly Windows for the first releases, and quite a delay later, the two began releasing early versions of AOL 3.0 and CSi 3.0 for the Mac. It seems it may only be a matter of time until they no longer produce software for the Macintosh at all.

Although I am primarily an Amiga user, I believe the Macintosh brings a good deal of innovation to the computer industry, and it would be a pity to see it die.

IBM's OS/2 Warp

True or false: Windows 95 was the first operating system to bring "true" multitasking to the PC. False! Truth be told, IBM beat Microsoft to the punch by at least half a year with OS/2 Warp Version 3.0, a product with a tremendous amount of potential that went almost nowhere. It was 32-bit, multitasking, and incredibly object-oriented. It later turned out to be a bit less demanding on system resources than Windows 95. Many Amiga users thought they had found their closest PC equivalent platform. It was still a disk and memory hog, but for PC standards, it was quite good.

Today, however, OS/2 is almost unheard of. Why? Here, there might actually be a few good reasons. For one, IBM didn't advertise it as well as they could have. Also, it didn't include all those neat little goodies that make Windows so immediately usable. A third possible reason is price of software: I always wondered just what software there was for OS/2, and then I looked through the catalog that came with Warp; it seemed to all be very high-priced business management software, in general. The Amiga, at least, never suffered from this; we have always had low-priced software for all purposes available to us.

To extend the online service description, CompuServe used to maintain a software product known as OS/2CIM, quite similar to WinCIM. Today, they have dropped support for it. Apparently, once Microsoft lazily crawled onto the 32-bit bandwagon, everybody flocked to them. It's a sad statement about the modern computer industry.

Still, though, OS/2 Warp is, in many ways, superior to Windows, and yet it suffers today. Has Microsoft grown so large that even the once-grand, once-proud IBM cannot stop it?

In Conclusion

So, just where is the computer industry going? From the looks of it, we've got a growing Wintel tumor that shows no signs of remission. Will we all eventually be forced to either accept a single "standard," or do without?

We must examine the motivating factors involved here. What is the point of "standardization"? It seems almost as if people believe computing will be improved if everything runs on the same platform. Or at least they are subconsciously working, as a group, to get things to that point. Believe me, "standardization" isn't all it's cracked up to be. There's a place for it, as well as a place for independent, innovative thinking. For a real-life example, it's useful that everybody's body has the same general shape, because it allows for things like development of tools, mass production of clothing, the practicality of musical instruments, automobiles, etc., but if we all thought exactly the same way, the world would be a very boring place. There must be a balance. The multitude of platforms is part of what has made the computer world interesting, and without the variation, things would not only be monotonous, but also limited in capability, and stagnant.

I personally have faith that the computer industry is not doomed to this state of utter decadence, and I urge you to have confidence as well. The Macintosh may very well survive this difficult period; after all, Apple was rumored to be in much worse condition about a year ago than they turned out to be, and now, they have some of their original leadership back, and multitasking is on the immediate horizon. The BeBox exists. Phase 5's A\Box promises to bring new levels of Amiga-style performance and power to the computer industry. Will any of these make it? We can only wait and see.

However, I have saved mention of the Amiga for last now, because above all else, that's the platform we're really trying to revive here. No matter not let anybody ever tell you, through words or actions, that there is no longer room in the world for a computer with a powerful, efficient design, built not only by people, but also for people, and intended to be pleasant to use, and to facilitate work and creativity alike. There is just too much good about this platform for it to simply fall to the wayside. And more than anyone else, we Amiga users can certainly understand and identify with the plight of the users of all other minority platforms, and we must cooperate, for we share a common goal: to preserve the right of variety, and the freedom of choice, in the computer industry.

So despite Microsoft's encroachment, despite the dominance of inferior technology, never give up the dream; never forget everything that got us here in the first place. Because as long as there exists hope, we will certainly be here to carry it forth.