Of OS Wars & App Wars

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

A long time ago, in a tech galaxy far far away, the personal computer operating system war came to a close. Standing on top of the heap, victorious, was Microsoft Windows.

For a time, it appeared that Windows would emerge as the only remaining OS, its ruthless assaults having obliterated every other competitor. But Apple, although reduced almost to ashes, eventually sent forth Mac OS X to mount a counter-attack. While OS X has never approached Windows’ level of supremacy, it gained a solid foothold and continues to make gains even to this day.

These two stand now alone among computer operating systems. As for the others…TRS-DOS, Atari OS, CP/M, and all the rest…they are fodder for museum displays. Even the venerable Linux survives with only a tiny blip of market share. 

The personal computer OS war is over. It’s so over that I will risk going out on a small limb and assert: No existing or future operating system will ever surpass Windows and/or OS X in market share. It’s done. Finito.

It is always possible that Microsoft or Apple will falter in the future, allowing for the possibility of a startup to gain headway. But it won’t matter. The tech world will have moved on by then to a different galaxy. The challenger would be the equivalent of a new and superior videotape format arriving to challenge VHS just when the world was transitioning to DVDs.

In fact, a transition of this sort is already well underway in the operating system universe — as we move to a mobile-centric (smartphone and tablet) galaxy and a new war. Actually, the transition is so far underway that the war is already almost over.

Once again, two leaders have emerged to claim a share of victory: Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. They continue to slug it out to determine who will be on top when the dust settles. The final result is still not certain. What is certain is that it’s game over for everyone else: Blackberry, webOS, Symbian and the rest. The chart below (which does not include tablets, just smartphones) paints the picture better than any words.

There is one potential wildcard in the fray: Windows 8 mobile OS. Even this late in the game, Microsoft has sufficient muscle to play catch up. And Windows 8 is getting very favorable buzz. Even so, success for Microsoft is not guaranteed; the mobile version of the new OS has to succeed on phone and tablet hardware; it could still go the way of the Zune.

Regardless, there is a pattern here, one that repeats itself in major application software categories as well as in operating systems. After a new technology/category emerges, a wild-west battle ensues with a diverse array of products attempting to gain a foothold. After the initial battles die down, only two or three significant competitors remain. Those outside of the top three may not completely die, but their market share will never amount to more than 1 or 2%.

As one example, this has been the pattern for word processors. There was a time when MacWrite Pro, Word, WordPerfect, WriteNow, NisusWriter, and others fought for dominance on the Mac. Today, it’s pretty much Word, Pages and nothing else. While a multitude of word processors still exist, their combined marketshare appears to be less than a speck of flea dandruff.

We’ve seen the same thing happen with page layout software, web editing software, photo editing software, music creation software and more. Almost always, it’s the big companies that eventually dominate, squeezing out the wannabes. Occasionally, when a company like Adobe prices its software out of the reach of mere mortals, smaller competitors survive by offering more reasonably-priced consumer-oriented alternatives. Beyond that, everyone else is left to pick up the crumbs.

I believe a number of forces typically converge to produce this result. There’s the marketing strength of the bigger companies, of course. In addition, the top two or three products in a category are often truly superior to the rest; the rest may deserve to die. Finally, there’s the public’s intolerance for too much choice, especially when it’s among different mutually-incompatible formats. That’s one reason, for example, we would never maintain six different DVD formats.

And yet…there is one place where this “war of attrition” has so far not followed the usual path: mobile apps. To see this in action, go to the iTunes App Store and search for “photo edit.” When I did this, I got 360 matches — and this is probably an undercount.

And no, it’s not the case that there are two or three clear winners with 358 losers. When I perused the list of top 200 paid apps, I found Camera+ at number 11, PhotoEditor+ at 66 and Snapseed at 130. And that’s just the paid apps. Among the top 200 free apps, I found Camera Awesome (5), Instagram (9), Picture Effect Magic (38), Viddy (115) and numerous others.

Even Adobe has been unable to gain supremacy in its own backyard. The Adobe Photoshop Express app came in at 164. There was no sense that any single app or two had won, or was about to win, any war.

There are numerous reasons for what’s going on in the App Store. One is that iOS apps are limited in size and scope. They cannot offer the sort of all-in-one solution that, say, Photoshop can provide on a Mac. This opens an opportunity for various specialized apps that each do a few of the things an all-in-one app does. You then need several apps to provide all the tools you might want. However, even this doesn’t account for the large number of very similar small apps.

Perhaps the answer is that we are still in the wild-west days in the App Store. The inevitable attrition is still a few years down the road. Perhaps. If so, we may already be seeing the beginning of the end in a few categories, as when an app such as Tweetbot moves to surpass most other Twitter clients.

I believe there is one other important force at work: the nature of the App Store itself. It offers a democratization of software that is quite different from what existed on personal computers.

First, the App Store places all apps on a more-or-less equal footing. True, the big companies can spend more to advertise their apps outside of the Store. And this has an undeniable, although not decisive, effect. But, once inside the Store and you begin browsing, no one app has a consistent pronounced advantage over others in getting your attention.

Second, apps tend to be cheap (most often under $10). This means that users can afford to buy and maintain several similar apps. As one comparison, Adobe Photoshop Express for iOS is free! You can’t get much cheaper than that (although there are in-app purchases you can make). In contrast, Adobe Photoshop Elements for the Mac is $80. As for Photoshop CS5, if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it.

In the past, I’ve criticized the App Store for its too-closed approach and its sometimes capricious review process. That’s the downside. The upside is that the App Store provides an ecosystem that permits a wealth of high quality and inexpensive apps to thrive. The consumer is the beneficiary. I’m not certain this can last indefinitely. But I intend to enjoy it while I can.

Popular TMO Stories



You forgot one key attribute for that explains the pattern in the OS and PC Apps markets that you described:  Learning curve effects. 

Unlike cars or typewriters where once you learn how to use one, you can pretty much use any other brand.  On the other hand the learning curves for OSes, full-feature photo editors, word processors, spreadsheets, etc. are pretty steep.  Once people are used to one, a competitor has to offer something really compelling for people to want to go through the PITA of switching over.  This is why it is so remarkable that this late in the PC game, Macs are still able to grab customers from Windows.  Either Macs are really good, or Windows is really bad, or both.


While I concur that the only victors from the OS war will only ever be MS or Apple, I’m not sure it’s over as such - the big battle to come is Win 8 vs Mountain Lion, and with both companies seemingly determined to blur the boundaries between tablet and desktop operating systems, I think the victor will be the company that remembers that in offices all over the world there are still millions of people who just need a fast, effective, non cluttered OS with which to do their work…neither company seem to be thinking about this right now, they both seem to be concentrating on the consumer market.

Ben at Windows to Mac


On the other hand the learning curves for OSes, full-feature photo editors, word processors, spreadsheets, etc. are pretty steep.

A steep learning curve indicates a high rate of initial learning and later, a leveling off while learning the finer points of a subject.  Ergo, a “steep learning curve for OSes,” etc. = easy to to set up and go, and I don’t think that’s what you meant.


Finally, there?s the public?s intolerance for too much choice, especially when it?s among different mutually-incompatible formats. That?s one reason, for example, we would never maintain six different DVD formats.

Ted, I’m baffeled by this statement.

Record Players had six different “common” formats. And then there were the “uncommon” formats.

People didn’t loose their minds over all the different record formats… Why do you think people now will over having different types of operating systems?

Ted Landau

Record Players had six different ?common? formats. And then there were the ?uncommon? formats.

Many of the formats cited in the linked article were different sizes of disc but played at the same speed on the same player. Not quite the same thing as what I am talking about. Further, not all speed formats were popular simultaneously. 78 records pretty much vanished after the 1940s, replaced by 33&1/3.

When I was growing up, there were only two formats of note: 33&1/3 (for albums) and 45 (for singles). And you could buy one player that would play both types of discs. 45 discs eventually died off.

This is in contrast to HD-DVD and Blu-ray, for example, which each required a unique player and offered similar content (as opposed to 45s and 33s which served different functions). Even here, there are only two competitors.

Imagine if there had been six different formats for single song records (45, 55, 62, 68, 72 and 77), each requiring a different type of player, all competing with each other for shelf space at the same time period, and each offering the same or similar selection of songs. How long do you think that would last? That’s what I am talking about. I see no reason to be baffled by the fact that this does not happen.


Great article, Ted.

The lessons we draw often depend, not simply on the sequence of events, but the time interval over which we observe them. A short interval may suggest one thing, a longer time interval may reveal the ‘short’ interval to be part of a longer trend with a very different outcome.

With that in mind, one can argue that MS as a company having been largely standing still, and resting on their laurels as the Windows and Office Suite company (okay, they have a browser business, too). While they have a game console and some other products, their real bread and butter have been made on the first two (or three) items.

Apple, having lost the PC platform ‘war’, epitomises the adage, ‘What did not kill it, only made it stronger’. Having staged a comeback with a couple of mainstream products (the Bondi-blue iMac and OS X), the company diversified into a wide array of seemingly disparate and counter-intuitive industries, that only over time - the long game - demonstrated that these manoeuvres set their strategy board with the skill of a chess grand master. There was organisation and structure here that unassailably controlled the centre of that board.

That the iOS devices are gaining traction in the enterprise is an understatement, and by now an undeniable fact. Through them, and increasingly by the supportive services and apps that serve them, they are becoming both a consumer and an enterprise standard, much as MS Office and Windows have been on PCs. However, because of the integration of function and user experience across the iOS and OS X devices, OS X and Mac computers are increasingly gaining market share, particularly amongst corporate upper echelons (just look at what people port to any airport business lounge).

The point being, the PC wars are not over. While we are unlikely to see Mac or OS X numerical dominance in the enterprise (I, for one, hope that we do not), the Mac has mindshare, and is increasingly supported in the enterprise as the best PC interface for all those iOS devices. We are likely to feel the Mac influence in the enterprise. In some cases, we already may be.

I would argue that Apple have been playing the long game, all along, and relative platform position is far from settled.

Log in to comment (TMO, Twitter or Facebook) or Register for a TMO account