Checking the Rearview Mirror

I enjoy getting mail from readers. Usually, readers are paying a compliment, offering a correction or insight, or asking for a recommendation. And from time to time, someone will write to ENT and accuse me of being a Microsoft corporate-line-toting OS bigot. I don’t enjoy the latter group as much as the former group, but both have their merit. While those of you who read me regularly know that I rarely go easy on bad Microsoft Corp. technology, it is true that my development and writing careers have narrowed in scope to include Windows almost exclusively. However, I checked my operating system rearview mirror for the first time in a while and noticed that a few platforms were actually making a strong advance.

Two years ago, the rest of the OS world was shrinking so fast in terms of relative market share and mind share that I never expected to consider any other platform seriously again. A couple of things have happened to change my mind. First, I started working at PeopleSoft, the number two enterprise software company in the world. What convinced me that I needed to check the rearview mirror was not the many platforms that PeopleSoft supports, but the Windows NT laptop that PeopleSoft issued me on day one.

My laptop is configured with Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, a 23-MHz processor, a 6-GB hard disk and 160 MB of RAM. Yes, this laptop has more memory than my previous three desktop machines combined! As I began to create my first design document using Office 97, imagine my surprise when the machine bogged down every 5 minutes or so with a flurry of disk activity. No hourglass, no message -- just a whirring hard drive. The keyboard would stop responding for 10 to 15 seconds, after which I would have a chance to review how well I can type blind.

As far as I can tell, I had every Office 97 productivity switch set in my favor: background saves enabled, AutoRecover set to a reasonably long interval, no automatic backup creation. Still, every few minutes: whirrrrr.

The file that I was editing was 3 MB in size. Let’s do the math. 3 MB x 2 (for UNICODE expansion) x 2 (for extraneous formatting) = 12 MB. A 12-MB maximum memory footprint for the file. Applications currently running: Word and some services. Network: didn’t matter, connected or not, the problem existed. Let’s allocate 20 MB for the kernel, 20 MB for Word and 10 MB for any services. That leaves 160 MB – (20 MB + 20 MB + 10 MB) = 110 MB of physical RAM in which to store my file. So, I should have 110 MB of available RAM to store my 12 MB file. In other words, virtual memory should never have to be swapped when editing this file. Not by a long shot. Still … whirrrrr … .

NT’s multithreaded architecture is designed to allow multiple activities at once. NT has settings to give preference to foreground applications. Moreover, NT is supposed to take advantage of all available RAM so that is doesn’t have to hit the hard disk. When the world’s best-selling word processor can’t support uninterrupted text input when running on the world’s premier operating system, it’s time to check the rearview mirror.

When I first glanced in my rearview mirror, I saw what looked like a home-built hot rod gaining on me. Turns out it was the open-source Unix variation known as Linux. Linux, which distributes an OS and source code for free, has made the cover of nearly every industry magazine recently. If you require a feature or encounter a bug in Linux, you can notify any number of Linux user groups, hoping someone will eventually add your change or fix your bug, or you can simply fix it yourself. Linux is like an empowered version of a giant open beta test.

Major database and productivity vendors, including Oracle, Informix and Corel, have recently pledged support for the freeware OS that has gained massive popularity as a reliable Web server platform. According to Datapro Information Services (Delran, N.J.), Linux is the only non-Windows OS to gain enterprise market share from 1996 to 1997.

The next time I glanced in my mirror, I saw a vehicle that looked like it came straight from the movie TRON. Apple Computer Inc. has blown away doomsayers and investors. (If you bought at the right time this year, you made a 300 percent return.) With large gains in revenues, the company is looking like a force again. Its cyber-chic iMac computer is doing what no network computer (NC) ever could: burning up the retail shelves. The iMac is a self-contained, Internet-oriented computer with connections only for phone, network and Universal Serial Bus. The result is an easy-to-manage box that has Internet access and all the productivity applications that the NC lacked -- plus a loyal customer base. It’s not certain that the Apple will be able to re-establish a business presence, but the iMac shows that Apple still knows what real people want.

Perhaps the market will indeed accomplish what the government has heretofore not been able to do: reduce Microsoft’s influence over IT. While NT 5.0 is still stuck in the pit, the rest of the OS industry is jostling to get ahead. Right now, I’d just be happy with a reasonable word processor and compiler. I hope that the threats approaching from behind will help make it happen. --Eric Binary Anderson is a Development Manager at PeopleSoft's PeopleTools division (Pleasanton, Calif.) and has his own consulting business, Binary Solutions. Contact him at ebinary@yahoo.com.