Edgelings

Sabertooth

SABERTOOTH by Charlie Martin

Everyone who watched the Flinstones as a child knows about sabertooth tigers — massive feline bodies, great curved incisors.  What most people don’t know is that sabertooth carnivores evolved independently at least three different times — from true cats, from another variety that shared a common ancestor with cats, and even from marsupials — sort of giant carnivorous sabertoothed wombats.The fossil records shows that all of them, over eons, developing bigger and better scimitar-like canines — and then, rather suddenly, each disappeared.

Watching Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer’s official announcement of the Windows 7 beta release, I found myself thinking about sabertooths.  It’s certainly not that the sabertooth form isn’t successful, but what’s always struck me is that it carries its own downfall in the very features that lead to the success of the design.  Inevitably, sabertooths become so specialized to killing particularly large prey that they can’t adapt to new conditions.

The Windows 7 announcement and pre-release follows unusually quickly after the release of Windows Vista.  Vista was everything previous Windows releases have always been: more features, improvements in security, a new and rather flashier graphical interface . . . but also not very compatible with previous versions of Windows, requiring more processor power and not compatible with a lot of existing hardware.  In fact, the release of Vista was accompanied by a new, and significantly more powerful, definition of what the “minimal” Windows system must be.

There was nothing surprising about this: Microsoft had followed the same pattern since releasing Windows NT.  Invariably in the past, there had been some grumbling; but people, and particularly big corporate customers, had accepted the changes and upgraded their hardware, software, and operating procedures to suit.

But this time was different: Vista was not a success.  In fact, not long ago, Microsoft tacitly admitted its failure, and extended the lifetime of Windows XP so people who don’t want to use Vista could continue to purchase the older system.

The environment had changed — and Vista wasn’t suitable to the new ecology.

There were lots of reasons for this.  The economic slowdown came along, and big customers found other ways to spend their money besides replacing all of their desktop computers.  Again.  Vista itself, in trying to improve some of the issues with previous versions of Windows, became much more difficult to use –features, like the perpetual prompts required to permit security- sensitive operations, became not just annoyances, but running jokes.

Possibly most of all, a new species of hardware came along in the form of “netbooks” — very small, low-powered, low-weight computers with good network connections.   Netbooks didn’t provide a sufficiently powerful environment for Vista; in fact the first netbooks used Linux because it was very difficult, and very expensive, to adapt even Windows XP to run on them.  

So Vista stumbled, even as Windows XP stubbornly refused to become extinct.  And as long as XP endured, Windows Vista was doomed.  Instead of being able to devour a $3000 desktop, Microsoft operating systems would have to survive on a $300 laptop.  

What was worse for Microsoft, though, was why the netbook became successful.  Other than some relatively specialized users, personal computers were largely used for office applications like word processing and spreadsheets, and for email, calendars, and web browsing.  But now all of these functions were increasingly being handled by web-based, software services, like Google Docs (where, in fact, I’m writing this article right now).  People no longer needed a really powerful computer to run feature-rich applications; they wanted something that wasn’t terribly expensive, comes up quickly, and is as painless as possible to operate.  

Microsoft’s operating systems have spent the last 20 years evolving in the opposite direction: instead of easy-to-use, lightweight software, Windows has become an incredibly massive collection of features, intended to be usable for everything from wireless phones to supercomputing.  (It could be argued that Windows is the largest single artifact ever made by humanity, bigger in terms of effort than the Empire State Building, the Pyramids, possibly bigger even than the Great Wall of China.)  Windows has become not only a monster, but one with an increasingly narrow market niche. 

At their peak, the sabertooth cats were the most effective predators that ever were; they dominated the forests and grasslands of paleolithic times.  As dominant as Microsoft’s Windows has become, the Vista debacle may be an indication that, like the sabertooths, its time has come and gone.