Does the OS Matter?

Talk to Bill Gates. Talk to Linus Torvalds. Talk to Steve Jobs. What you'll hear is that operating systems matter a lot. Talk to a CIO, and you'll hear something quite different. I've been talking to quite a few senior IT executives at dozens of large organizations -- from Boeing and FedEx to state governments and major universities -- and while everyone agrees that operating systems are important parts of their IT infrastructures, they also agree that they matter less and less. Even though the compelling controversy of Linux vs. Windows may keep developers and systems administrators awake at night, the people at the top of the IT food chain aren't losing sleep over the debate. Knowing that is probably giving Microsoft's chief software architect a nightmare or two.

That's not to say that staff concerns about the pluses or minuses of one technology over another don't matter. They do. But they're tactical issues that are internal to IT and not strategic issues about the business, which are what CIOs think about.

Plus, operating system maturity permits CIOs to ignore the "problem." For the first time in memory, standard, proven, supported and, for the most part, reliable and fast operating systems cover the gamut of IT needs. When the answer to your question is always just around the corner, you cease to concern yourself with the problem. Believe me, for IT strategists, the operating system debate is all but dead.

Need to deploy PDAs to your sales force? Need a Web, database or file-and-print server? Which operating system to choose isn't the first question you'll ponder. Instead, you'll ask yourself: Are the right applications available? Does our IT staff have the training to work with the new system? Will it fit into our budget? Can it be customized? Who will service and support the technology?

Naturally, the choice of operating system is crucial. But there's no right or wrong answer here.

At the high end, Unix proponents can't legitimately slam the competition (read: Windows) as not having the performance, reliability, scalability or breadth of applications to compete for data center environments. For departmental and Web servers, Microsoft can't chide Linux users that they'll be left in the cold if they adopt the open-source operating system. (After all, the service and support from IBM is generally considered a cut above that from Redmond.) Even at the desktop, where Windows is a legally sanctioned monopoly, users are choosing Mac OS X and, at many government sites, even Linux, and finding satisfaction because the real issues of application availability, support and cost are being answered.

If I'm right and the operating system is no longer a critical part of IT's decision-making process, then platform-specific vendors such as Microsoft and Sun will be at a disadvantage compared with the likes of Hewlett-Packard and IBM, which sell and service just about every operating system you can name. If you beat only one drum but your listeners want a symphony, you'll lose your audience.

Of course, Microsoft and Sun have more instruments at their disposal. But when chatting with IT executives, vendor representatives all too often stress their respective platform advantages, when those things matter less and less. I think that's because in both companies there is a fierce competitive tradition centered on their core technologies. It's a tradition that's served them well for two decades. And it persists today.

I recently talked with Paul Harmon, a senior consultant at Arlington, Mass.-based Cutter Consortium, about a report he wrote last month on Microsoft's response to Linux. "Microsoft likes having an enemy because it gives them focus," he told me. And Linux is now the enemy. While that strategy may rally the troops at headquarters, it no longer inspires customers.

Sun, which has modified its initial Linux-is-the-enemy approach, continues to view Microsoft as the evil empire and treats Windows with disdain. To do so is foolish. Sun is in effect telling its customers that they are supporting a wicked company and are stupid for using its products. Seems like a poor marketing strategy to me.

My guess is that the smart people who made these companies great will realize that the operating system game is over. And they'll turn their attention to issues that matter.

Mark Hall is Computerworld's opinions editor. Contact him at

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Users in the OS Slow Lane

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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