Back in the early days of home computing, hardware was the thing that determined what software someone could run.
I well remember the fierce competition between the likes of Apple, Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack and Texas Instruments. If you bought an Apple 2, the hardware was extremely proprietary -- you could only use software that worked with that specific brand of computer.
Even back in those old eight-bit days, we saw the emergence of something that was subtle yet extremely revolutionary. Companies started to pop up that made computers specifically designed to work with the CP/M operating system. It didn't matter who made the hardware -- the CP/M operating system was sold by Digital Research and any computer that met a certain hardware profile could run that OS. People didn't care if their computers were made by Zenith or Bob's House of Techy Stuff -- they just wanted the operating system in order to take advantage of the software available for it.
Bill Gates over at Microsoft was sharp enough to see what was going on and he took advantage of it. Remember the old IBM-PC? The folks at IBM entered the personal computer market with the old notions that the hardware was what mattered. IBM contracted with Microsoft to provide an operating system, but Microsoft got very lucky in the deal. Why? Because IBM didn't retain the rights to the operating system.
We all know what happened next, right? Clone PCs showed up all over the place. The IBM-PC quickly became the industry standard, but a lot of non-IBM computers were manufactured that could run Microsoft's DOS, thus turning IBM into just one more competitor in an industry it created. You'll notice that IBM has all but vanished from the personal computer industry while Microsoft has just grown.
Frankly, I believe we're seeing another revolution in the works. For years, we've seen operating systems compete for users. The clear winner in that fight has been Microsoft for years because just about everything works with Windows and that's the OS people want. The Apple Macintosh has had some success, of course, and even Linux has attracted a loyal group of users.
However, I'd argue that even what operating system a person uses won't matter much in a few years. Here's what I mean. For the past few years, the Arkansas Realtors Association (ARA) has sold a program through which Realtors can prepare all forms necessary to a real estate transaction. That program has always run under Windows. Got a Macintosh or a Linux machine? Well, that was just too bad -- get Windows or the software just won't run.
This year, the ARA has rolled out an Internet-based program for form preparation, meaning that anyone with an Internet connection can buy a subscription to that service and generate their real estate forms all day long. It doesn't matter if someone has a Windows box, a Macintosh or prefers Linux.
We're seeing the same thing happening with office suites. Go take a look at Google Docs, for example. Want to put together a word processing document, spreadsheet or presentation? If you've got an Internet connection and a modern computer, you can do all of that through Google Docs. You'll find the same wonderful platform independence through one of my favorite services, Evernote. I can take notes all day long at work on my Windows machine and can access them at home on my computer here or through the Internet browser on my wife's iPod Touch.
That, folks, is convenience. When you combine that platform independence with the ability to access your work from any computer or (in some cases) device with an Internet connection, you've got something that could result in a day where we don't automatically run out and buy Windows because it's the only thing that will run the software we want.
That's certainly good news, huh?