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It's Just An Operating System

"The operating system doesn't matter." -- Research In Motion Co-CEO Jim Balsillie, keynoting the recent Harvard Cyberposium 11.

It's not the first time such a sentiment has been uttered by executives who find themselves competing against Microsoft. And many, many more of us wish it could be the case but Balsillie and the rest of us know that Microsoft continually makes the operating system matter.

At the core of his argument Balsillie is right. While Research In Motion is running into Microsoft everywhere it turns these days, and Windows Mobile 5.0 with Exchange Service Pack 2 offers the intriguing push e-mail capability, he downplayed Windows in his speech noting that "The operating system in the device is 200 kbytes in code. It's a bit element in the system. A task manager."True enough. And DOS was just a task manager, and so is Windows. But Microsoft has made its little task manager impossible to overlook by adding the little hooks to extra capabilities that soon become must-haves in the eyes of software developers. You do that often enough and you become the 800-pound gorilla that rules the forest.

The fact that Microsoft hasn't accomplished that feat yet for mobile devices fuels such remarks from competitors. But historically, Microsoft has entered markets in precisely the same fashion. Maybe push-email isn't the ultimate hook. Maybe there isn't one hook but a series of compelling services that drives third-party development, which in turn drives the installed base to critical mass.

The operating system matters when you can use it as the ultimate lever. And Microsoft has learned well how to leverage the OS. If you don't believe it, check out the six-part feature package on the 20th anniversary of Windows. In particular, you'll want to see 20 Years Of Windows Releases for a snap shot of all those services and programmatic hooks that Microsoft has layered into the OS over the years. That strategy has made some of us very happy, some of us very angry, and a lot of us just feeling helpless. But hey, it's just an operating system, right?