Lack of Innovation a Commonality for Microsoft, Apple

Red faces all around at Redmond last week when Microsoft got caught distributing a utility to create bootable USB drives and DVD backup media from downloaded Windows 7 ISOs.

Is innovation overrated? Both Windows and Mac OS X have found success by borrowing from each other and building on it -- a model not that dissimilar from Linux and the open source software movement.

There's nothing wrong with the company's USB/DVD Download Tool in and of itself, apart from the awkward fact (discovered by Rafael Rivera) that it contained code borrowed from an open source project originally made available under the GPLv2. As such, Microsoft should have made the source code for its tool available, and most certainly shouldn't have offered it under the license terms it did.

Microsoft also faced accusations last week that it had patented an innovation that amounted to nothing more than the extremely useful UNIX "sudo" command — albeit with a GUI — which has been around for at least 20 years.

To make matters worse, some joker at Microsoft admitted the company copied OS X when designing Windows 7:

What we've tried to do with Windows 7 — whether it's traditional format or in a touch format — is create a Mac look and feel in terms of graphics. We've significantly improved the graphical user interface, but it's built on that very stable core Vista technology, which is far more stable than the current Mac platform, for instance

Simon Aldous, a partner group manager at Microsoft, told PCR.

Apple doesn't like people copying it, and although it knows better than to pick on Microsoft these days, it has just won an important legal victory against Psystar, a company that has been meddling with Apple's IP to make Mac copies.

It may seem like Microsoft's the villain and Apple is the blameless victim here, but don't forget Apple is a company built on a culture of copying, rather than innovation, just as much as Microsoft is. Both offer operating systems which, when you look at their histories, are far from original.

Where did Windows come from? Put very simply, Bill Gates couldn't be bothered to write his own operating system for the IBM PC, so he bought the rights to QDOS from Seattle Computer Products instead. Then he got the idea for Windows from Apple, and Microsoft's latest innovation is, apparently, the 20 year old sudo concept.

Apple, on the other hand, pinched the idea for the original MacOS interface from Xerox and added multi-tasking well after Microsoft. It then copied Microsoft by moving to the Intel platform, and built OS X on a UNIX base.

Tiger, Jaguar, Leopard and Snow Leopard are therefore just as much copy cats as Windows 7.

But it does go to show that copying, or sharing, can be rather productive. It's a point that's clearly not lost on Apple or Microsoft, and one that the open source crowd have been proclaiming openly for years: Sharing and making source code available for improvement by anyone is what open source is all about after all, and it's what makes operating systems like Linux so powerful.

It's no surprise then that of the world's most powerful computers included in the latest Top 500 Supercomputing list, just under 90 percent run Linux. The number of Windows and OS X machines in the list can be counted on one hand.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Nov 17, 2009
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