Understanding Computers
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  Open Architecture
Years ago, inspired by the success of a garage based company called Apple, the braintrust at IBM finally realized that might be a market for small computers. Having been in the business longer than anyone else, IBM was well aware that a computer has two main components, hardware that does the work and software that tells the hardware what to do.
The Operating System (O/S) is arguably the most important software on the computer. In addition to telling the hardware how to do its job, the O/S also provides a platform for all the other software. This saves a lot of work and, a critical consideration at the time, memory. The last thing the O/S does is provide an interface between the computer and the user, a way for the user to tell the computer what to do.
Because IBM wanted to design a computer that was flexible, inexpensive, and easy to operate, they made two decisions that still have a profound effect on Personal Computer (PC) computer users everywhere. The more famous of the two was to purchase an Operating System (O/S) rather than create their own. They eventually licensed something called the Disk Operating System (DOS) from a young entrepreneur named Bill Gates, allowing him to keep the publishing rights. Mr. Gates then purchased DOS outright for a fraction of the licence fee he had just been paid.
The second decision has had as much effect on the computing world as the first, but only the nerdiest nerds ever talk about it. Rather than design and build the pieces of their computers, IBM built a modular base and published all the specifications. Their plan was to encourage other manufacturers to create the pieces that plugged into their base. IBM could then pick and choose from these pieces without committing their own capital. They adopted what is now called open architecture.
Why is open architecture so significant? It spawned an industry. Suddenly hundreds of companies were producing their own parts in the hope of selling them to IBM. Unfortunately for Big Blue, it quickly occurred to someone that they didn't need IBM to build the boxes that held the modular parts. The clone was born and the computer boom followed. A very important part of that boom was the shed load of new software that only ran on the O/S that IBM hadn't bothered to buy from the fledgling Microsoft.
Ironically, Apple, which had inspired the whole thing, nearly went bankrupt during the boom, having taken the opposite track, closed architecture. Their products were plainly superior, but they were expensive, and only ran software engineered in Apple's own labs. Apple was making the Volvo of computers, the public was buying Fords.
Today, Apple has found its niche and is thriving again. IBM is chugging along and may get the last laugh. They have started promoting Linux, an open source O/S. Like open architecture, the innermost workings of open source software are public knowledge. IBM might yet be the ones who open the windows and let in a little fresh air.
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