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The Application Process Interface 

This is a fancy way of saying that an operating systems standardizes some things so that a lot of different programs can run on a lot of different computers using a variety of hardware.  Think of it.  All of the different people out there writing software to do all kinds of different things -- work processing, accounting, games, drawing, etc.  And all of it generally runs on your particular computer.  Not only that, it all generally runs on a lot of different computers using different CPUs.  That's amazing.

It's all the work of the Application Process Interface, or API. The API is really a set of standards.  Those standards control the way software works with the operating system.  By conforming to those standards, people who develop software can be sure it will work on any computer running a particular operating system.  Windows is so prevalent that we almost don't notice anymore, but each Windows program says somewhere that it's designed for Windows XP, Windows ME, etc.  Or another operating system.

The Face of the Interface

Here's an important thing to consider.  When you're running a program -- say Quicken -- on a Windows computer, you probably don't know where Windows leaves off and Quicken starts.  If you pay attention, you'll notice that some things look the same no matter what program you're using on a Windows system.  And those things look different -- and consistently so -- on a Mac.

That's because the window in which a programs runs, the menus that pop up and the way the program stores data are all a function of the operating system.  In fact, you can do some quick little hacks in windows that will change the look of every program you run.

If a program doesn't strictly conform to an operating systems API, it won't work.  Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration.  A few minor mistakes and the program will still work, you'll just notice some irritating little flaws here and there.  When you think about it, that gives a lot of power to the person who owns the operating system.  Like Bill Gates, for instance.  

As Microsoft's operating systems became the worldwide standard for most computers, Microsoft essentially controlled what software was worth selling.  I say essentially because the courts got involved and got Microsoft concerned.  Although the courts never really did much to Microsoft, the threat alone limited Microsoft's inclination to use it's power too much to its advantage.  I don't think it's going out of a limb to say that the company used the power enough to capture most of the OS market, push its office suite of programs to the top and wipe out any commercial competition to it's web browser.

That has caused a lot of resentment and fear.  Enough to spark and sustain a lot of insurgencies that are constantly working on new ways of knocking Microsoft off the throne.  I'm sure some of them kept Bill Gates up on the occasional night, but most never got too far.  Whatever they came up with was too hard to use, too uncertain for corporate customers to too easy for Windows to incorporate into its own portfolio.  But today things are changing.  

Linux and it's varients are getting really good. Great reviews are attracting attention. And the price -- often free -- is encouraging people to take a shot at loading them on a computer.  That's a body blow to Microsoft's key product.  What really amazing is that a lot of Linux versions have been around and consistently improved for long enough, that people are starting to trust them.  And then there's technical support.  Microsoft expects money for any help it offers.  In return you get good quality, consistent service.  Guess what?  There are so many people involved in Linix now that you can get specific help on a forum almost as quickly as you can get through to Microsoft's help line. And, once again, the Linux help is gree.

Then there's open source software.  A lot of the new open source applications are as good or better than their proprietary competitors.  That's going to nick Microsoft's own software products and hurt a lot of companies that program mainly for Windows.  

But the biggest threat is the Web.  Your browser is like a little operating system that can draw on an unlimited number of applications stored on servers around the world.  Google is offering web-based word processing and spreadsheets that do enough to satisfy a lot of people.  They may never do as much as Word or Excel but, then, they'll never be as complicated to use or as expensive either.  

And Microsoft's reaction to all of this may be its undoing.  It seems to be following the Bannana Republic President-for-Life's Guide to Staying in Power.  What does that mean?  The more people rebel against its authoritarian rule, the more it cracks down.  That, in turn, sends more people over to the insurgency.  Does that mean Microsoft is on the way down?  No.  Look how long some dictators have clung to power.  It just means final result isn't certain.