How OS X Won and Linux Lost the Desktop

| Particle Debris

FedoraOnce upon a time, the Linux community believed that they had just as good a shot as Apple on the consumer desktop. Both had a good UNIX core and both were working vigorously on a beautiful GUI. What went wrong?

(Fedora 17 shown left.)

Several authors have weighed this week in on the storied path these two OSes have followed. Part of it was defection by talented developers to the Web. Part of it may have been the never ending string of distributions and different GUIs. Part of it was that the Linux community was too maverick and didn’t ensure backwards compatibility between evolving versions of the APIs. They were too starry-eyed.

You can kick off the discussion with “How Apple Killed the Linux Desktop…” and then move on to “What Killed the Linux Desktop. Here’s an excerpt from the latter.

When OSX was launched it was by no means a very sophisticated Unix system. It had an old kernel, an old userland, poor compatibility with modern Unix, primitive development tools and a very pretty UI.”

One by one, Apple addressed these issues. With fanatical focus and plenty of patience, Avie Tevanian and then Bertrand Serlet improved each major component of OS X on a priority basis in a commercial environment, all the while avoiding the temptation to orphan the previous generation of apps. Miguel de Icaza writes, “So Linux was left with idealists that wanted to design the best possible system without having to worry about boring details like support and backwards compatibility. Meanwhile, you can still run the 2001 Photoshop that came when XP was launched on Windows 8. And you can still run your old OS X apps on Mountain Lion.”

Driving into the future requires a very clear vision about what’s important to customers and validating that at every stage of development. It was literally the tortoise and the hare. That’s how OS X won and Linus lost.

Tech News Debris

Dropbox, in the wake of a recent security snafu, has introduced 2-factor authentication. If you’re interested, here’s a handy tutorial by Dan Moren. The nice thing is that Dropbox, unlike Google, doesn’t require application-specific passwords.

Okay, how can I tie this next item to the Apple world? Okay, let’s try this. The Star Trek series has been an instrumental technology driver in our modern life, especially when it comes to tablets. There. Nailed it. With that, I can get on with this inspirational article reference. “Star Trek Fans Rescue Enterprise Bridge.” Afterall, some day, a starship designer is gonna need that prior art for patent litigation.

Kirk & tablet

Captain Kirk writes on his computerized tablet. Image Credit: Paramount

Recently, I’ve been writing about email on the Mac. Briefly, I’ve been sensing a certain restlessness on the part of some visionary developers. Namely, is Apple’s all there is? That’s all were gonna get? Here’s another response to that: “ Unibox - A New Take on the OS X Mail Client.” It’s time. Support your local visionary.

Meanwhile, Matt Milano, the author of MailForge, wrote to tell me that he’s retired from software development and thinks he’s found a good home for MailForge, a company, he said, that will give it the attention it deserves. You can find that email app now at Macsimize.

Here’s lesson #1,286 on why no one thinks like anyone else. “Connected-TV Users Prefer Ad-Supported Over Subscription, PPV.” It’s the ace up the sleeve of the cable and satellite industry and the salvation of the ad industry. It must give Apple researchers pause as they think about the future of television.

Technical Word of the Week (TWoW)

“Diworsification” (n.) The process of expanding your product line, presumably to increase revenue, and just making things worse.” Credit to Peter Lynch

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I think there are really three things that boosted OS X adoption. First and foremost the iPod, which led to the iPhone, which led to the iPad. Having the huge success that they did with these little mobile consumer focused gadgets really made all those people that bought them take a second look at Macs when shopping for computers.
Secondly, OS X is easy to use, easy to administer and un-intimidating. Maybe this is somewhat true now for Ubuntu, but it has taken Linux a very very long time to get to this point. Third, the Apple stores. People like knowing they can go back to where they bought something and talk to a real live person.

Linux has also been hampered by Microsoft’s deals with PC manufacturers. It is difficult to find PCs with Linux preinstalled. You can, but you have to go out of your way. You can install it yourself, but what non-techy person has the guts to do that? Linux is not advertised, and looking the case of a laptop, you can tell if it’s a Mac, but you can’t tell if it would boot into Windows or Linux. Since Windows is the dominant OS, that is what is assumed. Hence Linux doesn’t get any free publicity of being noticed in public places, like coffee shops.

Apple’s backwards compatibility isn’t so great, IMO. You can’t run PPC apps anymore, and I’m sure in the not too distant future you won’t be able to run Carbon or non-sandboxed apps.


Maybe this is somewhat true now for Ubuntu,

Ubuntu is better but after fiddling with it for a few weeks on a single use system I can tell you it still has lots of tripwires and landmines. Lots of blind corners where you end up bringing up the terminal to do something. It works fine for servers but it’s not consumer ready.


Yes, I keep trying out Ubuntu each time Apple makes some backwards step (in my opinion) with OSX.
I do like a lot about Ubunutu, but I find the same thing: too often when you are up against a roadblock, a google search shows that the answer is to bring up the terminal and type a string of random characters.
The other thing about it (and this may just be me) is that I always feel “blind” while using Ubuntu. I can’t see my hard drive. The desktop doesn’t show USB sticks etc. Where’s the structure of logically-named folders that you can poke around in? And most of all: where are my applications?
I like to be able to see my apps and docs and files and so on, not an endless series of aliases…



I would argue—and am convinced of this—that the one thing that made OS X a success over desktop Linux, and the one thing that GOT Apple to OS X, was Microsoft Office for the Mac.

I have worked for an international high tech company (II-VI Incorporated) since 1999, as pretty much the marketing department for the II-VI Infrared business unit, as well as others. When I arrived, I made it explicit that I needed a Mac to do my job (initially graphic design, then web design and multimedia).

In the workplace, being able to exchange Office files with 100% compatibility is vital. Love or hate Microsoft, Microsoft Office for Mac made this possible. As much of the work I do is creating and/or modifying PowerPoint presentations for senior executives, especially around Shareholder Meeting time, the ability to use my Mac seamlessly with the sea of Windows machines at II-VI is vital to me being able to do my job…and do it on a Mac.

I truly believe that without Microsoft Office for Mac, the Mac would have died before OS X saw the light of day, simply because Office for Mac made the Mac viable in business via 100% Windows Office compatibility. That’s something that Linux never had.

I have been a member of TMO for many years, so you who know me know that I am no Microsoft fanboi nor apologist. But again, I firmly believe that Office for Mac—by giving the Mac vital, SEAMLESS business compatibility—kept the Mac alive, while lack of such doomed Linux on the desktop.

That said, for the Linux fans out there, all my websites are developed on Mac OS X, but hosted on LAMP. smile


I think it’s a bit too early to make this call one way or the other.  Operating systems are evolving, not finalized, and to declare one or the other a winner strikes me as premature. I like OS X, but I also think that there are distinct advantages to running Linux, the community and the price not the least among them.  Further, the road that Apple is current riding looks remarkably similar to the path Microsoft has been on for years, and it’s a road that ultimately leads to their extinction.  By that, I mean that when you start locking your customers into ridiculous service contracts, and when you attempt to stifle innovation by design, you’re ultimately on the Road to Obscurity.


John ~ You probably remember that Mozilla said they were discontinuing support for email client, Thunderbird, but there have been a couple of updates since then, including this week’s release on v 15.  I decided I wanted to go back to v 14 (15 wrecked a couple of UI add-ons I like), but had already trashed it, so I worked my way to Thunderbird’s “other version” web page, where I saw versions 16 and 16 waiting in the wings.

That’s not quite what I thought “discontinuing support” meant, and I was encouraged by what I saw.  Do you have any idea what the current status of T-bird is within Mozilla?


I would argue?and am convinced of this?that the one thing that made OS X a success over desktop Linux, and the one thing that GOT Apple to OS X, was Microsoft Office for the Mac.

Abso-bleeping-lutely.  No question, in my mind.



Many thanks for these two Linux articles. While I never really got into Linux back in the days when I was learning my way around computers (I became a DOS maven at the time, who only dabbled in UNIX in order to use the mainframe), I had friends who did, one of whom was an engineering student who assured me that DOS was a dead-end and UNIX was the future. My future. He was right; it just hasn’t come in a GNOME or UBUNTU desktop environment.

I agree with mrmwebmaxa and iJack on MS Office being critical, at its launch, for OSX’s traction and success. One wonders, but for the fragmentation de Icaza cites, if desktop Linux might not have become an alternative UNIX centre of mass. Given MS’s feelings about open source, Linux in particular, I suspect it would not have won MS Office, even without the fragmentation.

MS Office availability was always the first question amongst colleagues who later switched from the PC to OSX. And while we’ve moved on from there, a bit, as the critical factor in Mac adoption, it remains vital for professional uptake (at least my profession), as most manuscripts are written in MS Word, and must be submitted to journals in that format. Granted, one can convert from Pages (which I have done), but one still cannot share an active Endnotes reference file between Word and Pages, if one is co-authoring with colleagues.

Increasingly, however, colleagues are asking about integrated data management across devices and with the cloud. That Apple can provide a near complete (supplemented by third parties like SugarSync for optimisation) solution is a substantial advantage.

I think the most important piece this week, however, is the one on the rescue of the Enterprise TNG bridge. No doubt, in some future space-faring scenario, it will be cited in court as prior art. And as for Kirk’s tablet, it’s in no danger of being confused as an Apple product.



MS Office availability was always the first question amongst colleagues who later switched from the PC to OSX. And while we?ve moved on from there, a bit, as the critical factor in Mac adoption, it remains vital for professional uptake….

wab95, you and iJack and I are on the same page with this, obviously. So here’s my question: The five-year agreement for Microsoft to continue making Office for the Mac expired long ago. So why do they continue to make it?

Microsoft must know that the Mac is gaining traction. A good way to stop that traction is to stop making Office for OS X. Is it fear of antitrust? Is revenue so great from Office for OS X as to outweigh defections from Windows?

Not that I’m complaining, mind you….


As long as people keep buying, why stop making?


So here?s my question: The five-year agreement for Microsoft to continue making Office for the Mac expired long ago. So why do they continue to make it?

I think it’s multifactorial. I’ve talked to people at MS about this same question, and most of what I am about to say reflects those discussions, as well as others I had with industry people years ago while a student in Palo Alto, supported by some speculation on my final point below.

One clear answer is $$$. As you know, Word, Powerpoint and Excel started life on the Mac, and the suite has always had a faithful and growing base on the Mac platform. Before Windows took off, Office on the Mac was already a money-maker for MS, and remained a sizeable fraction of its revenue, as a growing platform, as the company grew.

Granted, there came a point where that was a quite modest, perhaps even dismissible fraction, but that leads to the second, perhaps more important reason; and that is the personal relationship between SJ and BG, which is also not to be discounted, and was, as I understand it, a major factor in MS’s assistance to Apple shortly after SJ’s return. BG had an abiding personal respect for SJ, despite their at times tempestuous interactions. Nonetheless, personal relationships in business are critical, and so long as BG was at the helm, that commitment was likely to continue. Recall that BG has publicly, more than once, stated his admiration for Apple and the Mac. Having met and spoken with the man at some length (though not about Apple), I believe him to be genuine and sincere in his statements. I am not sure that this would have happened under Ballmer. His respect for SJ is more recent and hard won.

Third, and this is not straight-forward, is that MS need competition, and I believe, have always recognised this, and that Apple provided, even at its lowest point, real genius and a foil against which to work. I also suspect, given MS’s profound distrust of, and distaste for, open source, providing support to OSX and Apple with Office helped starve desktop Linux from gaining any respectable market mass, and therefore, the uncomfortable proposition of supporting it in order to staunch accusations of abuse of monopoly market share.

Finally, in the present, Mac marketshare growth is outpacing that of the PC. History has come full circle, and the desktop Mac is once again a money maker for MS - and still growing. Moreover, with the fate of their erstwhile dependable OEMs in some doubt, and the inability of anyone to provide meaningful tablet competition to Apple, extending that Office support to iOS is inevitable and likely essential to MS’s profitable future, particularly now that Apple have a reasonable home-grown alternative in iWork. Given MS’s struggle to provide real competition to Apple today in post-PC products and services, and the possibility of a third party developing something for iOS that could displace potential MS Office marketshare on that platform (and perhaps by extension, erode its marketshare on OSX), continued and extended support to Apple may be vital to MS’s future.

Xrhstaras Sketos

I don’t know who’s desktop osx won but linux is too many times faster that osx. I’m bored waiting for Apps to load seeing their freaking icons jumbing…...this screams OSX SUCKSSSSSSS
Ipads are more expensive than the average android tablet that can get give you almost the same .
Anyway i like (some) apple products cause they are stylish and has quality but i will not clap my hands like a retarded seal for it until i see some serious performance improvements….

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