The End Of the OS As We Know It

amcpherson's picture

So the bloggers over at ZDNet have once again proclaimed the end of the operating system. Larry Dignan says:

The operating system may be losing its luster. In fact, you could argue that the operating system–Linux, OS X and Windows–will become an application that just happens to boot first. And hardware vendors are on to the OS’s diminishing importance.

He goes on to say:

My working theory: The OS is being slowly downplayed as hardware vendors and Web developers grab more control over the user experience. The OS will never be totally irrelevant, but it will be increasingly less important. It’ll be plumbing. Simply put, the OS is being squeezed between hardware vendors that are cooking up their own applications to handle key tasks and the so-called Webtop, which will deliver programs through the browser.

I actually agree with much of what Larry says, even though I think the title and some of the points are too broad. Is the OS going away if people primarily use applications via a browser? Absolutely not. The OS remains: it’s only people’s legacy understanding of what an OS is that goes away. For instance, to my generation of computer users our experience with a computer was an experience with the OS. It was Windows, it was DOS, it was Apple’s, it was Linux. To my niece’s generation (age 14), their experience (except with gaming) is defined increasingly by the browser. Or by their cell phone.

As the traditional experience of the OS becomes less important, the value of a bloated OS with an incumbent advantage becomes less important. I have used both Linux and Windows and honestly when it comes to getting my work done, I find very little differences. Why? Because I use hosted applications via a browser. I use Word Press, Flickr, Google Apps, Gmail, online money management, online banking and so on. I don’t use native applications. The performance and experience of Linux in that case, is quite superior since it loads faster, performs better and gives me more flexibility. (It also doesn’t come pre-loaded with tons of crap-ware from AOL, security vendors and the like.)

Just because the OS becomes less visible, does that mean the OS goes away? How can it when software still needs to control hardware. You still need a kernel, you still need a scheduler. You can’t virtualize thin air. Plumbing is vitally important. (Just visit a third world country without it. Sanitation is the backbone of civilization.)

Is there a shift in the important of features required in an OS? Yes — see my points above. If the OS role has changed, I’m not so willing to pay the monopoly premium for Windows if native apps aren’t quite as important. (See the rise of the eeePC.) The ability for an OS to be flexible, to be customized by hardware vendors, by niche vendors who want to customize an OS for a specific audience: all of this becomes much more important. And all of this points to Linux. Desktops themselves are changing. They are becoming more like smart phones (or simply becoming phones). Those vendors want a customizable, modular OS they can brand with their own brand and not have to pay for the privilege to do so. This is why you are seeing the increase in Linux across mini-pcs, phones and embedded computing.

It’s funny to hear about the end of the OS when in fact, an OS or a component of it, like the Linux kernel, is in more and more places: it’s in your LCD TV, it’s in your car, it’s in your Tivo, it’s in your wristwatch. For something that is about to die, it sure is thriving.

There is a shift going on. There is a migration of margin in software sales, there is a migration of user attention from the OS to what you can do with the OS. But don’t forget there has to be an OS running all those apps people are accessing through a browser. See my list above — Google, Amazon, Ebay, Flickr, Facebook — all running Linux. In the history of evolution, those species most adaptable survive and thrive.