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Episode Summary

We don’t think enough about just how much our lives have changed because of technology. If you’re a millennial or older, chances are you can remember a time when payphones existed, everyone went to the movie theater, and lots of people didn’t have an email address.

A lot has changed for us along the way. The technology world itself has changed a lot from those early days in the late 90s as well. It’s worth taking stock of what happened over years, not just to remember how things were, but how what went before is impacting us today and will be in the future. And that’s because, just like history, technology doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

In this episode, we’re featuring David Adams, he’s the founder and publisher of OSNews.com, a publication that covers larger technology and platform trends. He’s also the chief product officer at Equiem, a software company that serves the commercial real estate market.

The video of our conversation is below. A transcript of the edited audio is below.


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, David.

DAVID ADAMS: Hello. Thank you.

SHEFFIELD: So, this is a big topic, but I wanted to, for those who haven’t heard of OSNews, let’s just talk a little about what OSNews is. It’s one of the first technology publications out there, you started in 1997, right?

ADAMS: Yeah. When we started OSNews, I had already been a very early computer user and enthusiast, and, in the mid to late nineties, there were some very exciting things happening with technology. the.com boom was just getting going. But the personal computing space was a little dismal because Microsoft was ascendant and they were consolidating their hold on the personal computer.

Apple was at its lowest point. And it was not even certain whether it was going to survive. And a lot of the interesting things that have happened over the past decades with Linux and with mobile computing were really just in their earliest stages. And so, I started OSNews as a way of tracking, and I guess in a way, even championing some of these trends that looked to make the computing space more vibrant and more competitive and more interesting.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think that moment for Apple, it’s something that a lot of people, it’s like they never heard of it, or they don’t remember it at the time, but I think it was a really interesting moment because, in the nineties they were pushing their original MacOS operating system and computers, and they were just, it was totally obsolete. And Microsoft had come out with Windows 95 and, it had some problems, but it was a lot more stable. And they came out with Windows NT actually before that, and then plopped on Windows 95 onto it, the shell.

And they were just totally crushing Apple and Apple really had nothing to offer business computer users, people who needed their computers not to crash. Even that’s a thing that’s changed substantially in the past 20, some odd years. That, people forget that in the early days, computers crashed all the time.

ADAMS: Yeah. It’s much, much less likely now that you’re going to be working on an important term paper for school and your computer is going to crash and you’re going to lose all your work. (laughter)

SHEFFIELD: I know you can’t use it as an excuse anymore. (laughter)

ADAMS: But yeah. Apple, the truth is both Microsoft and Apple in the early nineties had operating systems that weren’t particularly stable. But Microsoft in, in late nineties was, had had a lot more to work with as far as a war chest, and they muddled through and were able to transform Windows, something that was pretty lousy, into something that was pretty good, just by throwing resources at it.

And the Apple on the other hand, had made an attempt at designing its own modern operating system which was codenamed Copeland and that project failed. And a former Apple executive, Jean-Louis Gassée, had started an upstart operating system company called Be, and they made the BeOS was quite exciting and modern, and they were actually making a play to be acquired by Apple, and have that operating system be the basis for Apple’s new operating system. And then out of nowhere, Steve Jobs comes back, riding a white horse practically. And–

SHEFFIELD: Because Steve Jobs was fired from Apple.

ADAMS: He had been fired by Apple’s CEO for being an asshole, which he was.

But in the meantime, he had started a couple of other companies. One of them was Pixar Animation Studios, which was, which ended up being very successful. And the other one was NeXT, which built a new operating system based on an old operating system. So they had taken a version of Unix that– and Unix was a very stable, sort of enterprise-grade operating system that had been around for a couple of decades, and had a few sort of academic forks. So there were some commercial versions. Most of the big tech firms, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Digital, they all had versions of Unix that they used on, on, on their big servers.

But hobbyists and academics had taken up some, had made some versions of Unix and Steve Jobs had used one of those as the basis for the NeXT computer that he developed. And when Apple acquired NeXT, brought Steve Jobs back, they decided that technology that they built for NeXT, which was built on really an old and somewhat crusty operating system– but the interesting thing is that those origins, those Unix origins, are what the modern Apple MacOS are built on and also, the Linux operating system also comes from some of those same origins.

And that’s what Android is built on. So the interesting thing about what’s happened in the operating system world in the past 30 years is that an operating system sort of kernel, that was already old by then, is still kicking around and a lot of our most modern high-tech devices–

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and that strategy though, for bringing NeXT and Steve Jobs back, it was a take two strategy though for Apple, because they also were trying to do that earlier on their own with A/UX, Apple Unix. And unfortunately, it was an abortive project that never really got anywhere, but it’s fascinating as a museum piece, having anybody’s interested and checking that out. I’ll put some, I’ll put a link.

There’s a guy out there named Nathan Lineback who has a website called the GUI graphical user interface, GUI Gallery. And he has information on all kinds of historic operating systems and shows you what they look like. So it’s a fun, it’s a fun site if you are into computing history. So I’ll put a link to that.

But yeah, you’re right. That is a great example, as you said, about how technology, people think of it as, just always moving forward in one direction always and never looking backward, but that really isn’t how it works. Even Windows itself, Windows NT, which is the basis of all current versions of Windows, owes a lot to VMS, which is another operating system from the seventies.

ADAMS: A competitor to Unix, actually. When I first Became familiar with the internet as the administrator of a Gopher server, Gopher was a pre-World wide web internet protocol for sharing text-based data that was on a VMS server. So, I learned how to do file management and navigate in a VMS system back in the early nineties.

We’re in a situation now where we have a lot of good operating systems to choose from. Windows has become very good. And I think the MacOS has become very good, and Linux has become a really– you don’t have to be nearly as much of a geek to use a Linux desktop, or laptop, like maybe you would have had to be 20 years ago.

Android, iOS– we’ve got we’ve got a lot of capable platforms for operating computing devices. And so many of the things that were frustrating back in the olden days, back in the bad old days, having an operating system that wasn’t stable, very safe, having operating systems that were too incompatible with one another. And having hardware that was too slow, or too heavy, or too small, or whatever–

SHEFFIELD: Too expensive,

ADAMS: Too expensive, so many of those problems have gone away, and we have this embarrassment of riches of fantastic computing devices to use.

Now, the problems are a little bit more subtle, and they have a lot more to do with the fact that the operating system itself, and the device, and the operating system working in concert together, it’s no longer the dominant paradigm for computers.

Because the operating systems now are increasingly dependent on services that are related to them. There’s an ecosystem component to personal and business computing that is new and the strength of these ecosystems and the sort of lock-in and the control that the vendors of these ecosystems is becoming more and more important to everybody’s daily computing existence.

And it’s almost to the point where you can have great hardware that’s running great software, but increasingly, you’re limited in what you can actually do with these devices– the permission that you have from that ecosystem’s owner that dictates how you can operate.

SHEFFIELD: We’ll explore that further, but I think this has always been a dynamic in computing. One of the things that was instrumental in Microsoft’s early success was that they were very developer friendly. So people who wanted to make software, they didn’t charge you for development tools, or they charged much lower prices. So if you wanted to become a computer programmer in the eighties or the nineties, there were other companies out there that sold programming languages, compilers, but they were expensive, and Microsoft stuff wasn’t. And it was in some cases free, it was very well-documented.

And so, that was a huge part of why they succeeded. But then I would say you could even go back to look at really the first mass market computers for people were the early home arcade systems, the Ataris, the Intellivision, ColecoVision, and all of those. This problem keeps manifesting itself over and over in terms of that openness for the longest time, openness in terms of a platform vendor was an advantage that you could have. But now, things have become so big and so massive, that the openness is now becoming a disadvantage for some people and some companies, I would say.

ADAMS: The downside to openness from the point of view of a consumer is the amount of chaos that it can potentially bring into your user experience.

So, one other reason why Apple computers have typically been a little bit more friendly for consumers to use, is the fact that the ecosystem is more controlled. The computers are only made by one vendor, there’s a limited number of hardware components inside those computers that you need special device drivers for. And so, the likelihood that you’re going to plug in a new device to your computer, or that you’re going to install a new program and that it’s going to cause some other component of the system to break down, that’s always been less of a danger on an Apple computer than it has been on a Windows computer.

And that’s mostly because the Windows computer, the Intel platform is open to hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of different hardware suppliers that are all providing computer components that you can use. And the Windows operating system is set up to support all of them.

And so, you’ll install a video card, or you’ll install a Bluetooth card or something like that in your computer and sometimes it’ll just work. Other times you might have to go and download a device driver or something, and you can run into lots of different troubles. Things can go wrong because there’s so many different moving parts that are controlled by different people.

So that’s been the traditional downside of the more open platform, sometimes it can be a little bit less user-friendly, it can be a little bit less tolerant. But the other downside to the more open platform is malicious actors can take advantage of the openness in order to, in order to create malware that you can accidentally install on your machines.

More open platforms have a bigger surface for attack. And it’s astounding. There’s a sub economy out there of scammers and thieves and ne’er do wells that are out there, trying to steal your money trying to trick you into doing things that you shouldn’t do.

And one of the reasons that consumers have gravitated toward, or have begrudgingly accepted the limitations of a more closed ecosystem for their computing devices, is that it does provide you with a level of safety. It is much, much harder to end up installing something onto your iPhone that’s going to, that’s going to harm you, or is going to harm your platform in some way, than it is on a Windows PC.

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