I grew up with PCs. So much so, that I remember at one point thinking motherboards came with DOS installed on them (shut up, I was young! :P). By the time I became really interested in software the OS wars were largely over, and Windows was the winner. I knew that Macs were different, and always assumed they were inferior. I was perfectly happy with my “re-format every 30 days” system, writing little apps in Visual Basic.
Then one day my world was rocked. I was shown something different, a world I didn’t know. Linux. Well.. a mostly booting Linux system that would launch X11 then just hang, as was typical back in the day (gotta put something in ~/.xinitrc, yaknow). That gray/white checkered pattern and its weird cursor. It’ll haunt me forever. I wanted to learn everything about this thing. The fact that a PC could run something other than an OS provided by Microsoft was a new concept to me. It took me weeks to get the thing to install correctly on my PC so that I could really play around and learn. Whoever wrote those early Linux (Red Hat in this case) installers should be taken out back for torturing users the way it did.
While exploring Linux I discovered other operating systems, like Solaris, BeOS, QNX, and then the hobby OS world with awesome projects like V2_OS, SkyOS, Unununium (which I worked heavily on), MenuetOS, AROS, etc… This was well before OS X was released. I remember reading about NeXTSTEP, and how consistent the raving was : this thing was amazing, but the company never made money. I never got BeOS running on any of my systems, not for lack of trying, the thing just didn’t like me and my machines. But it was undeniably incredibly cool, again the company had trouble making money with the thing (understandably). And QNX always seemed to be a pet project or dev kit intro for developers, they clearly had no real interest in trying to get the mass market, even though they had an amazingly easy to use and rock solid OS.
The war was over when I got there. Though I likely argued more than a few times that Linux was going to take over Windows on the desktop, it was pretty clear that it would take something pretty big to bring MS down. Eventually I switched to OS X (oddly enough, for the PowerPC, I hated Intel _that_ much), and discovered how truly awesome that NeXT stuff was via Cocoa. But I always felt cheated out of experiencing the days of multiple operating systems fighting and constantly one-upping each other.
I think I’m finally getting a second chance at this. The smartphone and tablet space is becoming a very exciting area for OS development with a lot of interesting players. Apple’s got iOS (NeXTSTEP for handhelds). Palm had WebOS, which seemed pretty cool, but that wasn’t doing too well. Now that HP has bought them, there seems to be hope that we’ll see more WebOS devices. Google and its partners have Android, which so far has been rather lame due to carriers doing what they do best: screwing over their customers. But that’s not Android’s fault, and I’m confident that sooner or later we’ll see really good Android devices. Microsoft finally went back to the drawing board before creating Windows Phone 7 and that could be interesting. And now RIM has started showing off their first device running QNX since they bought the company behind it, and that’s looking pretty slick.
We’re at an interesting point in time for those devices. The barrier of entry for a new operating system is relatively low. iOS users will surely laugh at Windows Phone 7 users about the fact that the first version won’t have copy/paste, but that’s OK. I lived a few years without copy/paste on my iPhone and I didn’t die of embarrassment. With web apps being as strong and popular as they are, someone who makes an OS that does little more than load up a quality browser has a real chance at success (Hello Google ChromeOS).
As a developer, all of this excites me. It means companies are trying new things, they’re coming up with new development toolkits for developers. And I really hope that this time there isn’t one winner, but a whole group of companies that can each have a chunk of the market. This way we can make document formats king, and not the apps that produce them. Giving users more flexibility in what device or apps they use.
For the first time in a very long time, I’m truly excited to see where operating systems go.