The Religion of Operating Systems

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I write something that in any way hints that Microsoft Windows
can be used effectively, but is not perfect, I get letters from
members of two cults: the Apple cult and the Linux cult. They
assure me that my problem is that I use the system that 95% of
the desktop world uses, and It’s Just Not Good Enough. They assure
me that if I switched my allegiance to their OS, all would be

Now, I take
much the same view of the Democrat and Republican parties: switch
to something better. But there is a difference: I don’t think
American third parties will win elections. Operating system cultists
actually think that their operating systems are the wave of the

In marketing,
the guy who establishes the brand name first usually holds it.
When he establishes the market itself, he does hold it.

don’t bet against Microsoft or Arm & Hammer.


The story
of Apple is the story of missed opportunity. Actually, two missed

Apple once
had the inside track where it mattered most: business software.
When Dan Bricklin in 1979 realized that he could use an Apple
II to write and then use a program that could recalculate rows
and columns of figures, he knew that he would have a tool for
his classes at Harvard Business School that would give him a tremendous
advantage. Change the financial assumptions in the classrooms’
play-pretend exercises, and the spreadsheet could do the task
in seconds.

He sat down
and wrote the program. It was called a spreadsheet.

He neglected
to patent it. So, it did not make him super-rich. The program,
VisiCalc, was released by Bricklin’s company, which had a disturbing
acronym: SATN. This stood for Software Arts Technical Notes. The
Website assures us
that this is pronounced “satin,” which
indicates that others have mispronounced it over the years.

Apple II
now had a program that every business wanted. But the company’s
founders decided to concentrate on the education market. Sell
Apples to schools for classroom use! In short, they targeted a
market filled with bureaucrats who did not face serious competition,
in an industry that spends most of its money on buildings and
salaries for administrators, not on students.

Then, to
compound the problem, they chose as their secondary market graphic
designers and artists, i.e., people close to starvation.

Then IBM
came in with the PC, which then turned the market over to Microsoft,
who owned the operating system and told IBM that IBM could not
have it unless Microsoft retained ownership. Then Microsoft licensed
the software to IBM’s competitors.

second mistake came a decade later, when its leader, recruited
from Pepsi Cola, decided not to license Apple’s operating system
to other computer companies in the way that Gates had licensed
DOS to many companies. The chairman had the contract on his desk.
He refused to sign it. This kept Apple’s OS proprietary. That
was Apple’s last chance to beat Microsoft. The name of the OS
game was market penetration and market share.

Apple got
the well-deserved reputation as being a computer for teenagers
and graphics users. Its unique selling proposition was this: “acne
and artists.” It never recovered. It never will.

Yet the
Apple cultists still tell me that I should switch. Me! A guy who
types on a 1983 IBM PC/AT keyboard. A guy who uses WordPerfect
for DOS.


Then there
are the Linux cultists. This OS is free, i.e., does not charge
you to buy it. You can download it, free.

Then what
do you do with it?

There is
no technical support unless you pay some distant programmer or
a local geek who enjoys being offbeat. Linux is constantly being
rewritten by independent programmers. It is not owned by anyone.
No one is in charge. Hardly one makes a profit. It requires that
a user learn a programming language so arcane that it is regarded
as difficult to learn by Microsoft programmers

Linux users
assume that other users should know how to understand code. That
is to say, the priests think that everyone else should become
a priest. They also assume that a user’s time is of zero value
or close to it.

Other religions
know that there are both laity and priests. The founders structure
their fledgling organizations accordingly. Luther may have taught
that every man is a priest, but he did not set up his new church
accordingly. If he had, Lutheranism would look a lot like Linux.


There are
lots of little companies on the fringes of every industry. Think
of all the people out there writing programs — programs that
hardly anyone hears about. About 95% of the applications used
by businessmen are these: word processor, spreadsheet, data base,
and graphics/presentation program, accounting. In short, they
use Microsoft Office and Quick Books. Had the U.S. government
not intervened, Microsoft would have bought Intuit, which produces
Quicken and Quick Books.

Every other
suite of business programs is in the shadows. Yes, you can get
an open (free) source business suite that does the same things:
Open Office. But what
businessman would bet his firm’s survival on an unsupported program
that hardly anyone knows how to fix if there is a crash?

A rule in
life is this: “Pay me now or pay me later.” Businessmen would
rather pay a few hundred dollars for a universally used program
for which there is an army of programmers who can fix it when
there is a breakdown — and there will be a breakdown. It’s
digital, after all. What a businessman wants is competition among
digital repairmen, not free software.

The free
market is based on the idea that sellers should be allowed to
make a profit by serving consumers. Any producer who adopts another
model moves from business to charity, or from profit to prophet.

I want someone
out there who wants to make money by selling things I want. I
also want him to make the same offer to lots of other buyers.
I want a track record to examine. I want to know that he has a
broader vision than serving the needs of a little band of faithful
souls, who are expected to believe because they are not asked
to pay.


I don’t
want to become a digital priest. I am content to remain a layman
in the digital pew. Sing the familiar hymns. Recite the familiar
prayers. Don’t feature any guitars. I don’t want to learn a new
system. I want to go with what works fairly well most of the time.

He who lives
on the cutting edge dies on the cutting edge. I’m with Joe Reinhardt,
who sells used video equipment. The slogan for his company is
“trailing-edge technology.”

I don’t
plan to move to Windows for writing until I can find a way to
stop typing. Until that day comes, DOS is good enough for me.

for this much-touted ten-finger touch-typing innovation, spare
me. An index finger to type and another to depress the shift key
and function keys are good enough for me. And as for function
keys across the top of the keyboard instead of down the left-hand
side in two columns where they belong, spare me that, too.

let me say that there is a day of judgment ahead for the programmer
who programmed the BIOS to boot up with the “numbers lock” key

P.S. A letter
from a Linux advocate reaffirms my main point in my remarks on

Unix nor Linux was ever intended to be a single-user operating
system, such as DOS, or Windows 95, 98, etc. Unix and Linux
were multi-user systems from the beginning; Linux is orders
of magnitude more complex than DOS. The leaning ladder is steep,
but the difference is, that unlike Windows, with Linux one can
actually find the rungs. That means we don’t have to take anyone’s
word for what is going on in there. That reality is far more
important than you seem to recognize.

key word is “we.” When he says “we,” he doesn’t refer to me. I have
to take someone’s word for what is going on in there. I prefer to
take the word of a company that has several hundred million users
and a supporting army of local repairmen all over the country who
understand what’s going on in there.

25, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit

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