The end of the OS is nigh

It’s been coming for years but the operating system as we know it could heading for virtual extinction

By - August 30, 2011

Windows, Linux, Mac OS X – the three protagonists in a long-running battle for the hearts and minds of computer users.

Over decades of computer development these operating systems (and others) have battled for dominance, adding new features, tricks, capabilities. All in the hope of attracting new fans.

Now, the era of operating system as we know it is fast coming to a close. At least it is for me and, I suspect, many other computer users.

Although I am still a dedicated Linux user with probably more than the average mental buy-in to its success than most other OS users, I can see the signs of the decline of the OS; the small changes that are making Linux less important to me and my browser ever more important. Not because Linux is not good enough or Windows is more appealing – simply because I now value an OS that gets out of my way and lets me get on with what I want to get done.

Until about a year ago every new iteration of Ubuntu was a source of excitement. The new features, the shiny new icons, the ever-improving user experience was a thing of beauty, one to be looked forward to eagerly. In most cases I jumped on the bandwagon as soon as the first beta of any new Ubuntu release hit the web, mostly rewarded with six hours of frustration with not-yet-complete features, but addicted to the promise of something new. I was hooked into for documents, wedded to Evolution for e-mail, manacled to Ubuntu for all of my computing needs.

Then at some point in the past year, I started drifting away. Perhaps it was the first Galaxy Tab, or the HTC Desire phone I had started using. Suddenly I was checking my e-mail on my phone, tablet PC and on my desktop. The idea of having my e-mail locked into one application on my desktop was ludicrous and counter-productive. The idea of storing my documents on a hard disk tied to one computer was unthinkable. Indeed, even having to rely on a any particular application for word processing or basic spreadsheets was becoming unthinkable.

Fortunately, today it’s possible to use a range of online services to replace many, if not all, of the applications on the standard desktop, and with many hardware makers now moving towards system-on-a-chip processors, the centrality of the operating system is being undermined.

Of course the operating system will never completely disappear but it will be reduced over time to the status of “plumbing”; the bits that make all the others bits work. In many ways the operating system will simply be the first application to load when booting up. All the the other applications will use it to launch, and from there on they will run the show (and many of the applications).

Already the likes of Google’s Chrome browser are doing this with HTML5-based applications as well as its new Native Client framework. Native Client allows programs developed in C and C+ to be run directly from the Chrome browser. It’s still in early development but the objective is clear: by making it possible to develop rich C+ applications once and run those in any Chrome browser, on any platform it becomes possible to service all platforms in one go. It also potentially sidelines the operating system and makes the browser the hub of our world. So long as users have a browser they can use an application on a desktop, a laptop, a tablet PC or even a smartphone.

Chrome is not the only example of this strategy but is among the most active. As a user I am increasingly uninterested in how it all works and more concerned that my e-mail, my documents, my photos are available to me, wherever I am. It’s becoming less about the operating system and more about how I ensure this access across all platforms.

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