The Religion of Operating Systems

Whenever 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 well.

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 future.

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

Conclusion: don’t bet against Microsoft or Arm & Hammer.


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

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.

Apple’s 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.

As 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.

Finally, 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 activated.

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

Neither 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.

The 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.

October 25, 2004

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

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