Microsoft Windows is of course the dominant operating system on the personal computer, with Linux dominating basically everything else (even smartphones; Android is based on Linux). What if that was different? I’ll go through a couple of scenarios, one hewing more closely to real life and the other hewing more into my go-to alternate-historical science-fiction setting.
What if Microsoft didn’t play nice with the Web?
Microsoft Windows was already popular in the early 1990s, especially with the release of Windows 3.1, and Microsoft had a close relationship with IBM which catalyzed their dominance in the enterprise space (a long and fascinating story which I won’t relate here); with Windows 95 the company became truly dominant for personal computers, and they’ve never truly lost their lead since. What’s really remarkable about this is that 1995 was before the Internet became of paramount importance for personal computing, a reality which swept the world in just a few years; where it gets really interesting is that Microsoft had some trouble keeping up with this development, but managed to muddle through (Internet Explorer, in particular, was a great coup for them). What if they weren’t nearly as successful in transitioning to Windows playing nicely with the Web?
Microsoft has always been a rather stodgy company; let’s say they were even stodgier and, more importantly, pokier in integrating the Internet into Windows. Let’s say there’s chaos after something (an accident, maybe?) happens to Bill Gates. Who knows? Anyway, if there was no obvious choice for the burgeoning legions of Internet users then that makes an opening for some other operating system that’s really slick and integrated well with the Internet, possibly based on Linux a la Google Android about a decade later, takes over by the year 2000. This would represent something of an early forerunner of the cloud-based software (web apps, web storage, etc.) used today, with personal computers on this OS perhaps being optimized to run like web servers and nodes in peer-to-peer networks (think torrenting and the like).
Much earlier Broadband needed? Enter NASA; yes, really!
An era where 56k modems through telephone lines were the best most people could get certainly couldn’t support such a thing, but who’s to say 56k is the best most people could get by the year 2000? The technical capability to provide high-speed low-latency satellite Internet a la SpaceX Starlink already existed long before that time; indeed, several startup companies in the late 1990s were trying to do it and ended up being unsuccessful, because they ran out of money and couldn’t make it profitable. But you know who does stuff in space that doesn’t need to be profitable and has virtually unlimited financial backing? NASA, that’s who.
Imagine if in the early 1990s NASA was tasked with providing high-speed low-latency satellite Internet to everyone in this country free of charge by the year 2000, with a mandate to provide, say, 1 megabit speeds, and Congress were willing to appropriate whatever amount of funding might be necessary. Sort of an information-age Project Apollo type deal. This could certainly stimulate such a development; the connectivity needed for such an operating system to appear and become popular at the dawn of the Web would be there!
Ben Carson for 1992?
A more technophile and visionary administration than Bill Clinton’s would be required. Helpfully, Newt Gingrich is in line to take over as Speaker after 1994, and he’s always been a big-time space cadet; if someone had the idea and it was kicking around in Washington it probably wouldn’t have been difficult to get him on board with it. Al Gore was always considerably more interested in the Internet and new information technology than basically any other prominent politician of the period; it’s not hard to envisage a scenario where Gore wins the 1992 Democratic primary and the general election (he did alright when he ran in the 1988 primaries, after all).
But I’d nominate a much more off-the-wall possibility: Ben Carson. Yes, the sleepy doctor from 2016. Although he didn’t become a politician until then in real life, he was already famous after the 1987 conjoined-twin operation, and in 1992 he was 41, about the same age as Gore, Gingrich, and Clinton! In 1992 George H.W. Bush is the incumbent, and it’s unlikely any Republican would win in 1996 against a Democratic incumbent, so he’d have to run and win in 1992. Bush needs to be sent out of the picture for this to happen, and the simplest way to do this is for Dukakis to win the 1988 presidential election. If the country is still in bad shape a Republican is poised to win in 1992 (and subsequently in 1996).
Another Dark Horse, another Return to Normalcy? More “Peace Dividend”?
The GOP’s bench isn’t too thick in this era, and there might be some appetite for a more exotic type of presidential candidate, if Ross Perot’s (and even Pat Buchanan’s) popularity then is anything to go by. After the quasi-incumbent lost 1988 for them, and after the experience of Reagan-Bush left a bad taste in their mouths (yes, Reagan and Bush were not thought of well in the early 1990s), the Republican base might be ready to take a chance on a dark horse.
Judging by some of his comments Carson might be fond of more techno-visionary ideas. Where it gets fancy is that this sort of exotic candidate in the vacuum right after the Cold War ended, when everything was up for grabs and questionable, could have spearheaded a much greater military drawdown concomitant with a much more serious effort to integrate Russia into the West (namely the EU, NATO, and the like) as soon as possible. Sounds pie-in-the-sky now, but all this was being seriously discussed by foreign policy experts and global politicians at the time. The upshot is that such a “return to normalcy” would free up a lot more money to be used for big civilian projects…like NASA Starlink. Ooh…
Some interesting aspects of such a Ben Carson presidency is that he’d be a black president decades earlier than Obama who isn’t named Colin Powell, that he’d be the youngest president ever (at 41, he’d narrowly best Theodore Roosevelt’s record-young age of 42), that he’d be the first president without political or military experience decades earlier than Trump (though it’s worth noting he wouldn’t be the first major-party nominee to fit that description; that would be Wendell Willkie in 1940, who interestingly was also a Republican), and that he’d be the first physician to become president since William Henry Harrison all the way back in 1840.
Contrary to what it might sound like on this blog I’m really not that big a fan of Dr. Carson in general, but it’s a fascinating scenario, which at least is different from the obvious possibility for space cadets: conniving a Newt Gingrich presidency.
Scoping out some electoral Politics: enter Bret Schundler?
If there’s a big enough Republican sweep in 1992 Congress might flip, possibly making for a Gingrich speakership a couple years early, and the first GOP trifecta since Eisenhower came in 40 years earlier. In my view it’s well possible that the Republicans could have maintained their trifecta for some time. Carson is likely re-elected in 1996, and the national environment in 2000 will likely be good for yet another Republican victory. Who would be Carson’s successor?
A good pick for a running mate in 1992 might be Donald Rumsfeld, and he’d be in a good spot for the GOP nomination in 2000, though at 68 he would be a bit old; it’s not entirely a given whether he’d even be interested in the presidency, though in real life he seriously explored the possibility in both 1988 and 1996. Hmm.
I might indulge myself in elevating yet another obscure Republican, Bret Schundler, to the presidency. In 1993 he was elected (under somewhat odd circumstances, which may well repeat in this timeline) mayor of Jersey City, the first Republican to hold the post since 1917 (in what was then and still is now a very heavily Democratic area), and proved very popular. He ran for Governor of New Jersey in 2001 and 2005, but was unsuccessful, ending his political rise; a national environment more favorable to the Republicans might have helped him. To become president in 2000 he’d probably have to run at least an election earlier, in 1997, and be successful. Christine Todd Whitman was the incumbent governor (and likely would still be victorious in this timeline), but she could be taken out of the picture by whatever means by 1997.
Anyway, let’s say Bret Schundler runs and wins in 2000 for the Republicans and is re-elected comfortably enough in 2004. 2008 looms like a maw if our timeline is anything to go by, but who’s to say 9/11 or anything like it even happens in this timeline? Without that the early 2000s recession isn’t as severe, the Fed doesn’t lower interest rates into the basement, the credit bubble doesn’t inflate as much in the 2000s, there’s not nearly as bad a credit crunch…you get the idea. With Russia integrated into the Western fold and without the elevation of someone like Xi Jinping to the leadership of China (instead let’s posit the CCP is still slavishly following the reformist precepts of Deng Xiaoping), we could see the global status quo and trends of the 1990s continue indefinitely. A rosy timeline? Perhaps, but hardly an implausible one.
Porting all this over to my go-to Timeline
Speaking of rosy timelines, my primary science fiction setting is a rather rosy alternate history, where the World Wars never happen and there’s a neverending economic boom; moon landings, computers, and supersonic jetliners are all a thing by 1950. Where it gets interesting is that the tech industry is basically a blank slate; no characters or companies from real life (bar the earliest ones) would be involved, since the point of divergence is all the way back in 1900.
I have established in my timeline that Oleg Losev (who was a real and rather inventive and enterprising person; invented the LED but perished in the Siege of Leningrad…) is far more successful in a liberal-democratic capitalist Russia, and stages a coup for Russian efforts in space by leapfrogging the German spaceflight association’s first satellite launch by being the first to launch a global network of communications satellites, covering the world through Molniya orbits, named, as in real life, after the Russian word молния, meaning lightning, referring to the lightning-quick perigees characteristic of their orbits. Vibe: think Elon Musk, but Russian, and a lot cooler. Hehe.
Anyway, the Internet is already a thing as early as the 1930s in this universe, and Losev is already running Internet through the Molniya system in 1941! As the hermit of the Oregon coast declares in a yet-to-be-released story of mine:
It was a radical concept, using satellites for communication, especially in any practical sense so early in the space program. In fact it was about their first project. But they thought it was worth the risk, and it paid off. Six satellites, three for each hemisphere, broadcasting television signals. Truly global television and radio, for the first time ever. Even some Internet traffic too, actually. Anyway, they didn’t want to just broadcast to corporations or whatever, they wanted to leave a mark in the minds of the masses. So they opened up a program where individuals could have these big satellite dishes set up at their house and get television broadcasts right there directly from space.
How will Losev fund his Dream? Government Grants? Private Donors?…
Through the 1940s the Internet advances much like it did in our 1990s (computing technology is generally 50 years ahead of real life), so it should achieve truly mass prominence around this time. I’m sure as of 1941 Losev might already be dreaming of a global satellite Internet constellation, up to true broadband speeds. Losev runs a private company, which is not the sort of entity that could pull off such a thing on its own when launch is still as expensive as it is in the early years of spaceflight (Musk is barely making it work now with reusable boosters that cut those costs by a factor of ten…).
An analogue of NASA’s mandate, just with Losev as the contractor, might be possible; nationalized and even internationalized railroads, telegrams, and post offices were already commonplace even before World War I buttered us up for state socialism, so a state-funded Internet effort really isn’t that weird. A huge private donor or set of donors paying for it is another possibility; in this timeline Nikola Tesla becomes the richest man in the world, and endows a foundation for the advancement of science and technology that makes Rockefeller’s outfits look like peanuts. Maybe they take the lead in funding Losev’s dream?
…or maybe something like the X Prize, but far bigger…ooh…
An even more interesting possibility would be a prize set up in the early 1940s, along the lines of the Ansari X Prize, to bestow great riches on whoever is the first to deliver global satellite Internet of the required specifications and free of charge to all, perhaps even with a deadline of 1950 to get the money, spurring a frenzy of activity that Losev prevails in. It would require truly enormous donations, perhaps from both private and governmental sources (helps considerably that the billionaire class is far richer and more numerous already by the 1940s in this timeline, due to the tech boom that’s across the board rather than just in computers), but it would really just be an expansion (albeit a drastic one) of the aviation prizes that were already commonplace in the early 20th century (and indeed were the inspirations for the Ansari X Prize in real life!). Frankly this option strikes me as by far the most plausible, given the circumstances and zeitgeist of my timeline.
At least such a thing would explain why there’s already live streaming video over the Web by the time the first men land on the Moon in 1949, as depicted in my story “Wings of Fire”. Such prizes may well exist for the Moon landings as well as for other milestones (Mars, anyone?), and be a key piece of the funding puzzle for advancing spaceflight.
A Linux Analogue as the Standard?
Back to operating systems, god knows what sort of OSes would be prevalent in this timeline. It kinda strikes me as a fluke that one operating system, namely Microsoft’s, ever became as dominant as it actually did; as I understand it before Windows 95 the norm was for multiple operating systems to have major market shares. In the history of technology such an environment, where various systems compete but without much hope of any one achieving supremacy, is often conducive to the adoption of common open standards. Something like Linux would do nicely as the common compatible kernel; while Linux itself obviously isn’t a thing in this timeline, the Linux vibe has a high chance of being replicated by some time in the 1940s (or even earlier…).
In particular, you know those cool operating systems they have in Hollywood movies that look kinda like Windows but rely a lot more on a vaguely DOS-like command-line interface? They answer to the general description of Linux! Alas, they can’t render DNA sequences as rotating colorful 3D objects in real-time on demand with just a couple of keystrokes like in “Mission to Mars”, but in an alternate history you could easily see something like the Encom OSes from “Tron: Legacy”, which are so closely based on Linux the authors even took care to depict authentic Linux commands! Encom OS 12 would seem to be based on Linux, much like Google’s Android (and ChromeOS) is, only it seems that desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and even those cool glowing desk things can all run on it. No wonder Alan was so miffed about Encom charging for the OS instead of giving it away for free…it’s based on free-and-open-source software! Hehe.
Introducing: Molniya OS
Anyway, if I were to construct a common standard operating system for an alternate history I’d go with the Linux vibe, since it’s probably the coolest variant of any OS which has found mainstream success in real life. At that point the different distributions would compete with each other, but all mainstream operating systems on all computing devices would have a high degree of compatibility. That’d be nice…
Let’s say Losev takes this standard and puts his own spin on it, rolling out a distribution by the late 1940s that offers unmatched Web-oriented features (think having all out of the box web apps, cloud computing, peer-to-peer connectivity, interoperability with other devices, etc; not sure exactly what at this stage, I’m just brainstorming here!) and is designed to work with the Molniya satellite Internet link (it might still be called Starlink in this timeline, since that’s an obvious name for it, but maybe we don’t want to make the Musk parallels quite that blatant…).
Call it “Molniya OS”, with the logo being a big lightning bolt. Or rather, МОЛНИЯ in big capital Cyrillic letters (or perhaps МОЛНИЯ ОС, but I think it would probably look better on the startup screen logo without the “OS” addendum). Cyrillic cursive is another possibility, but the big blocky capitals would probably go better with a lightning bolt; the developers might use both types of letters or maybe change it up every so often.
Combined with everything else this really tilts the playing field of my timeline even more toward the Russians, but meh, whatever. Unlike Windows it’s not like this particular distribution will get an all-dominant chokehold on everything forever.
Laserdiscs Dominate! Woohoo!
Aside from the startup screens being lightning bolts instead of windows, another change in vibe compared to real life is the mass usage of good old-fashioned laserdiscs. Yes, for computers in the real 1990s we had CDs and even (if you were really swanky) DVDs, but both of them are but a descendant of the original optical disk: the laserdisc. The most interesting property of the original ones is that they were much larger, at 12 inches in diameter, being about the size of an old-style LP vinyl record. This was deliberate, so as to ensure compatibility in storage; the old laserdiscs came in sleeves, just like the LP records did, meaning if you had a shelf or cabinet of vinyl records you could store your laserdiscs with them seamlessly.
The larger size, aside from being cooler and more antique and retrofuturistic, means a greater amount of storage space is available at a given technological stage. A girl like my character Taffy who wants to install a city-building simulator could do it in one disc instead of three or four like I had to do at her age. HD resolution could be reached even with red-laser technology, with blu-ray being more like 4K or 8K resolution. Lasers and optical discs didn’t exist in real life in the 1940s, but in this timeline lasers and optical discs are a thing in the laboratory by the end of the 1930s, meaning by 1950 laserdisc could be available for consumers.
This is all part of a deliberate recipe on my part, to make for my universe something like the early Web era software (complete with those doorstopper software manuals you used to get out of the disc boxes…anyone remember those?), only much more souped-up.
A bit rambly, I know, but this is the product of a little brainstorm I had while I was out and about yesterday. The scenario with the 1990s point of divergence is an interesting little caprice, but I think I’ll get the most mileage out of what I’ve dreamed up for my primary fiction setting. For a while I’ve wondered what sort of operating systems they’d be using and it’s now much more crystallized in my mind’s eye. Molniya, super-early satellite Internet, and laserdiscs! Gonna be awesome when it’s fully fleshed out…