Operating systems don’t matter

Yep, it’s true. Despite all the calls I get about Windows Mobile, Android, S60, Vista, Leopard, Linux etc… , the truth is, operating systems don’t matter. Well, that’s not true. They matter to me, they matter a lot to the folks who sell them and they matter to developers but as far as consumers go, operating systems don’t matter to them at all (even though they think they do).

So what does matter? Applications, of course. (and that’s why developers care about the OS). I’ve bought a lot of PCs in my day. I didn’t buy a PC because of DOS, I bought it to play Starflight, SkyFox, Zork and run WordPerfect and DBase. I didn’t get Macintosh to use Mac OS, I cared about MacWrite and MacPaint. There’s a reason we call operating systems platforms, that’s because they allow developers to build cool stuff that we can all use. No cool stuff… no market share. Period.

The head of Black and Decker once said, folks don’t buy our products because they want one inch drills, they buy our stuff because they want one inch holes. It’s all about the apps and that’s why the mobile OS platform is shaping up to become a real battleground


UPDATE. I’m told the quote is actually from Theodore Levitt.
"People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole." — Dr. Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business School Professor emeritus

31 responses to “Operating systems don’t matter

  1. Michael-

    There’s a gaping hole in your argument that causes it to fail.

    The operating system IS an application to the user–it’s the OS UI, by and large, that attracts consumers to Mac OS over Windows. (Developers are another matter–they may like the -nix aspects)

    Also, the UI isn’t all pretty pictures–which is a major reason why there are so few successful viruses on OS X.

  2. I agree with you but only to some extent. Users don’t spend time working in their OS. I’d also argue that despite Mac OS superiority in the areas you claim, Windows beat Apple in the late 80 through the 90a mostly on the basis of application availability. At this point, Ubuntu looks pretty as well, and yet Linux lacks mainstream users as the apps they want aren’t on the platform

  3. I buy Macintosh because of the User Experience which starts with Mac OS X and works it way through applications developed for it, which tend to be far more elegant than PC counterparts. It’s not just the OS that determines this, but rather that Mac users are more demanding for excellence (i.e. ease of use).

  4. Except, of course, that applications aren’t one inch holes, either. Applications are one inch drill bits. Newsletters, images, music, email and other things that people make are the one-inch holes — the reason they buy the operating systems and applications.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with those comments. A good OS shouldn’t matter. A good OS should seem almost invisible to the user, and work exactly as he does. However, this is not how any OS does work at the moment, and they are certainly not invisible, and thus the OS does matter to the user.

    In my opinion, Windows is the worst culprit in this sense. For example, when working for paper, you often have multiple pages from multiple files on your desk that you’re working between. Windows prefers to only let you have one piece of paper on view at any one time.

  6. Michael – great observation. Do you think that is why something like Apple’s app store has been a success when compared to something like Android and the G1? i.e. it’s the apps?

    • yes. i do and the fact Apple taught folks how to use the store and what the apps made possible. first time a handset vendor showcased third party apps in a national campaign

  7. Apple did not lose the 80s and 90s due to App availability, it lost due to price. At that time computers had not yet bacome so common-place that there could exist a user acquired niche product that sells well as is the case now. Much like the first wave of washing mashines lacked any neat features, and the first wave of cars lacked anything fancy, the first TRUE big wave of computers being the DOSes and WinDOSes was not about being quality. It was about getting it TO people. If it were true what you said, Macs should never have gotten into a bad position in the first place. They had the good apps. What they lacked was a good price. Now that people seem to be willing to pay a premium for computers, quality started to matter. Drill analogy: As long as you can’t afford a fancy drill de luxe, you just get me the give-me-hole-no-matter-what one. It’s after that wave of drills that gets interesting…

  8. I disagree. While they may qualify as “applications”, built-in apps on OSX like Preview (and Quick Look), Dashboard, Expose, and others make using a Mac much more pleasant. The ability to hit space and see what’s in a file without actually waiting for an application to open it is huge. The ability to print to PDF without installing extra software is huge. The ability to connect to another machine on your network via screen sharing without installing any extra software is huge. These are all technically applications, but they’re ingrained as capabilities in the user interaction with the OS. I miss them when they’re not there. We’re way past the point where operating systems just handle the internals (e.g.: hardware, memory management, process scheduling, etc…). Moreover, the OS dictates a huge amount about how applications actually work by providing common and standard controls.

  9. Nice metaphor, but let’s extend it a bit. There are two types of drill buyers: professionals who will need to create many, many 1-inch holes, and home DIY users who have few needs for 1-inch holes, but like to fiddle around with some wood in the garage. The professional has specific needs and will get the right tool for the job. The fiddler has aspirations and spare time and might buy a new tool because it helps him once with one project, or maybe because it might come in handy someday.

    The professional user (not just business! Also scientists, writers, artists, researchers…) will find the tool that allows for the subjective best method to accomplish their larger goal (to write, create, make money, compile data, etc). The hobbyist on the other hand will think a long time about the tool itself because the experience — not the product — is crucial.

    When pleasure is a user’s goal, the operating system is important; when the product is, the operating system is secondary to the application.

  10. You have a good and valid point there, but I think you’ve expressed it badly. If memory serves the b&d quote was “people don’t buy our one inch drillbits, they buy our one inch holes”. Subtle difference, I know, but an important one I feel. The point being, we don’t buy an OS for the sake of owning an OS, we buy an enabler that let’s us get more work done, or let’s us play more games, or let’s us get our emailing and browsing done as fast and efficiently as possible. People don’t buy applications or OSs, something that apple understands and msft doesn’t IMHO.

  11. “first time a handset vendor showcased third party apps in a national campaign”

    In some ways, the beginning of the downward spiral at Palm was when we pulled back from launching our “Perfect Day” campaign that was focused on showcasing applications and how they can make your day better. I think the “Perfect Day” print ads ran, but the television ads were only ever shown at tradeshows. A shame – they were gorgeous.

    It is in some ways both vindicating and frustrating to see Apple doing the things to promote apps that I spent years fighting to get Palm / PalmSource to do.

    – Chris Dunphy
    (Former director of Competitive Analysis at Palm & PalmSource)

  12. OSes provide the framework within which you use all the applications that run on it. How copy and paste works, how drag and drop works, how fonts render, how apps are launched and killed, and how files are managed. These are all considered by most to be intrinsic parts of the OS. I much prefer using the Mac OS, even when I’m running apps that have perfectly acceptable alternatives on other platforms.

    Besides, you’re just some douche bag writing a blog. You couldn’t tell your ass from your elbow. Why should I care about your opinion anyway?

  13. The problem is, too many people think the UI is the OS and the OS is the computer.

    The operating system IS NOT the computer.

    It’s a part. It’s an important part, but just a part. The Operating System the machine-level instruction set that makes the inside parts of your computer aware of each other and sets up the rules of how they interact. The operating system literally operates the system. Modern operating system packages also include application programming interfaces (APIs), kernel extensions (”Drivers”), user interfaces (both command line and graphical), and bundled applications (Programs and Utilities).

    This has led many barely-technical types to think that these front-facing parts are the operating system, proving once again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Forums all over the internet are filled with those who believe that a simple shell-appearance change or new versions of bundles apps is akin to a whole new OS, and a new OS is akin to a whole new computer.

  14. I want to agree with you, but when I look at my individual use case, I can’t. The things that make me prefer Mac OS over Windows are all part of the OS.

    For example, window management is (ironically) an awful chore under Windows. Its “every application is a window, and every window is an application” metaphor is fundamentally unworkable for many types of applications, forcing all sorts of inconvenient kludges on them. Also, it has no answer at all to Exposé. (I think Exposé is the single biggest feature tying me to the Mac – I can’t live without it anymore.)

    That’s just a single example, and it applies to Linux just as well as Windows. There are great apps on Windows that are broken or nonexistent on the Mac (MS Office, Google Chrome), but nothing greases the wheels between apps quite like OS X.

  15. to Michael:

    In a comment, you write:

    “Users don’t spend time working in their OS”

    Perhaps you are referring to the class of users that have technical support. I don’t, and am often forced to move to a new version of the operating system. I am a long time willing mac user, but have near contempt for the installation procedure, which is, as far as I’m concerned, part and parcel of the operating system. It’s certainly not an application in the sense in which you are using the term. But over the years, I have spent many hours “working” in it.

    (Incidentally, why, after all this time, has the process not been improved? With the capacious hard drives available today, why can’t I keep on working in the older system while the the new version is gradually put in place. I wouldn’t mind if I were interrupted every fifteen minutes or so with a dialog box saying something like: “Please stop working for a few seconds to permit a step in the installation”. Just don’t lock me out of my machine while I wait and wait, worried about what bureaucratic fixes the new version will have me chasing down. )

    Applications exist according to the whims of the operating system. New versions of an operating system often require the user to purchase and install new versions of applications: again, “work” in the operating system for the user.

    I think you are mainly right in your remarks about users, applications, and operating systems. But please keep in mind that operating systems come in a succession of versions, and that process demands a lot of user attention,
    at least for those of us without support.

    Thank you,

    Roger Purves

  16. Perhaps I buy a *drill* because I want to make one-inch holes, but I might buy a *Black and Decker* drill to make those one-inch holes because I like the way it feels when I pick it up, or I trust it to be durable because of the brand reputation, or because I think the company will stand behind it.

    Of course, my father is a professional woodworker, and it’s been a long time since he bought a Black and Decker tool; they are no longer ergonomic, durable, or well-supported. But they still make one-inch holes.

    For my one-inch hole needs, I have a Panasonic cordless drill. They aren’t sold at the local home center, and it wasn’t cheap. It’s perfectly balanced, isn’t fatiguing to use, can make one-inch holes in a two-inch-thick beam, had one of the first NiMH batteries on the market, has survived being dropped a few times, and is still going strong after wearing out two batteries. I may only use it once a month, but I like having a *good* tool when I need to make one-inch holes. It makes holes without getting in my way.

    When I need to use a computer, I use a Mac. They aren’t sold at the local Wal-Mart, they aren’t available at the $300 price point, and there’s always Windows… but the Mac is ergonomic, durable, and well-supported. It’s a more pleasant tool to use. It computes without getting in my way.

    Any businessman who builds a tool that can, technically, do a task, but ignores *how* it does that task and how it *feels* to do that task with the tool… is doomed to fail in the long run.

  17. Nah in mobile devices it’s all about the OS because that is what does 90% of what you will ever use it for.
    I got an iPhone for safari, multitouch and the music player, not for a few games, fart machines and a port of Things

  18. Man, some of these comments… …

    Mac OS X fanboys, when you use something like quick view, you are using an application to view media or files. That it’s built into the operating system, doesn’t mean that it is the operating system, it does turn it into a kind of application, true, and provides an argument that OS’s shouldn’t outsource all functionality to 3rd parties.

    @Mark “Newsletters, images, music, email and other things that people make are the one-inch holes” You kind of prove the general point here, that the OS doesn’t matter, though those types of media are not holes. I don’t drill a hole in a wall and that is my sole source pleasure (wow, a hole!), I drill it to hang stuff up on it. That analogy is more applicable to your examples.

  19. Michael, it’s an old argument, but folks should stop trying to make something so complex and subjective a black and white issue. I think your point might be valid for the inexperienced, uninitiated, or indifferent, but not for others.

    Think of cars. You’re so happy to get your first car, that you’ll take just about anything that runs. It has all the basic stuff: 4 tires, steering wheel, radio, etc. It might not be the color you want, and it might lack the ability to play MP3s, but you’re okay with that.

    Fast forward to your fourth car, and things are different. You might care about the brand (Apple vs. HP). You have a definite opinion on color. The exterior (hardware) and interior (OS) has to ‘look right and feel right’ to the buyer. The features (applications) all do about the same thing, but it’s how they go about doing them that differs.

    OSes definitely matter to some folks.

  20. I think most of the people commenting here are missing your point. These people work with computers every day. As you said: “they matter to me, they matter a lot to the folks who sell them and they matter to developers.”

    Having worked tech support for many years, I can guarantee you that I care very much about what OS a user is on, as it makes a huge difference in how quickly I can solve their problem.

    But the user doesn’t care. All the user cares about is how the computer (or mobile device) works. Many people in this thread have pointed out that the OS is the UI. It is in a sense, but then again, it’s not. Most iPhone users wouldn’t care if their iPhone ran Windows Mobile under its UI, as long as everything still worked.

  21. I strongly disagree.

    Presenting the B & D Test and why it fails with Apple products.

    While the Black and Decker analogy for It’s weakness hinges on an underlying assumption that isn’t true: even holes are not the end the customer has in mind. No one drills one-inch holes just to drill holes–some application needed one-inch holes in a certain pattern and spacing.  And it is how the manufacturers product shapes the experience of drilling holes that really matters–how it eases the task, increase accuracy, reduces completion time, etc., etc. 

    With that in mind, let’s create a “B & D Test” and apply it to, um, let’s say the iPhone: “Our customers don’t care about the elegant design, Coca and OSX feature and UI enablement, UI, the app store for the iPhone, MobileMe integration–they just want to make calls”. 

    Um, no. Failure.

    It is OS X and Cocoa that shape the experience an app can create on the iPhone. And that is all the difference in the world.

  22. I find it really interesting that folks who use Macs always have to explain why they use Macs and why Macs are better. It’s like going around trying to tell everyone why Pepsi is sooo much better than Coke. It’s must get exhausting. Just use your computer and drink your Pepsi.

  23. @James – It is interesting, but as a Mac user I constantly find myself being attacked for being one, so maybe it’s a gut reaction for some of us.

    What I find exhausting is having to explain why I use “a stupid Mac” to every Windows evangelist out there. So, I’ve personally given up…

    I don’t care about the OS, I care about the experience of using it and what I can accomplish with it in my precious time.

    Funny thing I once heard from a long-time Windows user who switched to a Mac: “It’s amazing! Every button or option I’m looking for is right where I expect it.” I thought the same thing when I switched.

    But, trying to stay on topic, that’s typically application UI and not OS. I think the philosophy that creates the OS UI bleeds into the application UI that is built upon it. This creates either a culture of “simple, get out of your way UI” or, in my opinion, “gaudy, look at what you just spent all your money on UI”.

    And as far as Apple hardware goes, I don’t know, maybe it’s just me but I want something nice for my money. I want to feel like I bought a quality unit. I once was looking at an IBM Aptiva desktop computer that had some weird “pop-up” CD/Floppy compartment that sat under the monitor – my question to the “helpful” BestBuy salesperson was “What’s the ‘cheese-factor’ on that thing?” He laughed but I was serious. It seemed cheesy and pointless. How much time went into designing and building something like that? Something that didn’t seem to serve much of a purpose… contrast that with a magnetic power supply connector. Simple. Genius. Keeps my computer from hitting the floor when someone trips over the cord.

    To me that’s Apple and OS X.

  24. If they do not do their job seamlessly then operating systems matter quite a lot. The reasons I switched from Linux to OS X was because I grew tired of having to muck with things that I no longer had an interest in: recompiling kernels was fun once upon a time. Now, not so much.

  25. For me it’s about aesthetics. I try to dress to look good, not just to keep warm. I use a handsome pen. I like Papuro notebooks. I could wear any old thing, write with a chewed-up old Pilot G2 on steno pads or those damn fall-apart leaky-paper cult Moleskines. I choose not to.

    For the same reason I chose a beautiful wife and a beautiful computer since time I’m not spending looking at one, I’m looking at the other. (Okay, I’m lying. I /got/ a beautiful wife by standing in her eyeline and jumping up and down. A bit like the Apple Store experience.) Both are also extremely smart, elegant, and good at their jobs. But that’s not the primary reason. Actually my favourite app — Nota Bene — is Windows-only. But I can’t stand the – to me – sheer cartoonish ugliness of the environment it operates in. So in that sense the OS is /so/ crucial I’d rather use a lash-up in more stylish surroundings. (And I’m not a hobbyist futzing in the garage for fun. The computer’s where I earn my living.)

    Not rational, I agree. But a lot of what we do is a lot less rational than a lot of us believe…

  26. Operating sistems shouldn’t matter, but they do, and they do matter to the end user BECAUSE of the applications.

    By applications we say the applications i like , i work with, and i possiblily will work with, and it means software or hardware.

    windows has the mostrous larger user base , because of basically 2 motivations.

    1) the majority of the software and hardware vendors make their products compatiple with Windows OS first and then with others.

    2) the majority of the user base has learned and is used to windows, in various extends.

    it maybe a culture and this practices maybe unfair, but they are just real and are very hard to change!

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