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The Best Products to Come in Second Place

An Apple (and Commodore!) OS TKO
With a market cap that jockeys with ExxonMobile (XOM - Get Report) as the world's largest, it is pretty easy to forget Apple has often been an also-ran in the tech space.

Even today, many credit Microsoft -- perhaps rightfully so -- as being the operating system that put a PC in every home. Bill Gates' brilliance was in convincing IBM, and eventually others, that his variation on DOS was the standardized operating system needed for market domination.

Then there was the upstart Apple, which took its swings at the behemoth pairing by introducing a user-friendly, graphical interface (we say that well aware Xerox (XRX - Get Report) was the creator ... but we digress).

The debate will rage on, as it has since 1984, over which OS is superior. Here is the argument, however, from those who say Apple's system was the better of the two from get-go: In terms of usability, one can draw a conclusion Apple had a better grip on making computing mainstream, so much so that Gates and his Microsoft team almost succeeded in licensing the Mac OS. When Apple (a much larger company at the time) squashed any such deal, the release of Windows 1.0 prompted the threat of a lawsuit over copyright infringement.

A compromise led Microsoft to continue making Mac software, while Apple allowed some of its visual aspects to be used in Windows.

Lawsuit threats again flew back and forth when Apple CEO John Sculley deemed Microsoft's Windows 2.0 far more similar to the Apple OS than the license agreement allowed. A judge would later rule against Apple.

Over time, Microsoft's business model and in-demand application suites allowed it to overtake Apple.

Team Apple has some more recent evidence Microsoft is trying to emulate its innovation.

In 2009, a Microsoft executive -- Microsoft Partner Group Manager Simon Aldous -- perhaps said more than he should have at a tech conference: "One of the things that people say an awful lot about the Apple Mac is that the OS is fantastic, that it's very graphical and easy to use. What we've tried to do with Windows 7 -- whether it's traditional format or in a touch format -- is create a Mac look and feel in terms of graphics."

That said, Microsoft, as of October, commanded an 86.5% share of the operating system marketplace, compared with 6.5% for the Mac OS.

To add another wrinkle into the debate of the best OS not being the most popular, there are also Linux users willing to go toe-to-toe with "distros" such as Red Hat and Ubuntu. Peer back in time a bit and you will also find plenty of computer geeks (and we use term affectionately) who can make a persuasive case for the Commodore 64 (made between 1982 and 1994, with a modern iteration now available) having not only state-of-the-art hardware at a consumer-friendly price, but a graphical approach that rivaled, if not surpassed, even Apple's.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/josephmont.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.

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