The End of the Operating Systems War

by James Bain Feb 16, 2007

I am old enough to remember a world before the web, when the most exciting Internet services were Gopher, WAIS, and LISTSERV.


I remember checking out the first few web pages at CERN and knowing right then and there that that new thing would blow everything out of the water.

And I was right.

Will I be right again?

I don’t know, but time will surely tell.

What’s my prediction now?

That eventually no one will care whether or not you’re running Windows or Mac OS X, or *NIX or whatever.

That eventually it simply won’t matter.

Because all your applications will be either online, or running in one OS independent form or another. Right now Java seems to be the one clear path in this direction, but all that’s subject to change at any moment. Virtualization and thin-client are two other possibilities worth noting too. What flavour of operating system or computer, or whether you use any computer at all, won’t matter a bit.

Things like web-based email, on-line office suites, and Internet available document storage systems are quickly making operating systems irrelevant right now. It really is only a matter of time.

Some examples?

Google Docs and Spreadsheets these days is a ‘good enough’ office suite that you can access from lots and lots of different web browsers. There’s debate and question as to whether my RAZR phone, or anyone’s eventual iPhone, will be able to access it, but if not Google now, then somebody else later. It’s such an obviously useful thing that it’s inevitable.

How about Microsoft SharePoint? It’s amazing! Now that the whole Microsoft 2007 world has been released, we’re seeing just the beginning of the sort of features and capabilities that are possible in this sphere. It’s quite staggering. From almost any web client, I can securely access all my company’s corporate files, any time I want. No Virtual Private Network, no weird hardware. Just a browser.

I remember Netscape 0.9N. That wasn’t such a big step away from IE7, or the web browser on my phone. Still within the same conceptual framework, just a richer feature set.

SharePoint and stuff like it will mature similarly, but at a much faster rate. There are far more desktop computers now than there were then, and people are wanting that sort of functionality on smaller and smaller devices, and are willing to pay for it. Follow the money and there’s your product!

Imagine being able to access your files anywhere at all, anywhere. Imagine having to organize things, of course, and having to have some sort of device and communication thingy too, but right now even, with planning and all the right bits, you can access your media library from the middle of the Kalahari, the depths of the Ross Ice Shelf, or the Space Shuttle. Not quickly, but you can. Now imagine that being faster. Imagine being able to run PhotoShop from your phone (thin client).

Anyhow, I’m still pretty impressed that I can access my email from my local coffee shop’s wifi point, or do serious MS CRM development on my servers at work off of my couch at home, doing the whole DSL/VPN/Parallels/RDC from my MacBook Pro. Being able to access my electronic life anywhere at anytime, whoa! We’re almost there now!

And we’ll eventually be able to do it without a keyboard or monitor, without any sort of device you can drop, crush, or lose on the bus. It’d be embedded in your skull maybe, and flash upgraded as needed. All very SciFi, maybe, but we’ll be there eventually.

For now, anyhow, things won’t be quite so drastic. Hadley Stern was right, however. The operating system is dead, almost.

Our so called OS Wars will end not because there was any clear cut eventual winner or loser, but because the technology itself outstripped everyone and made the whole debate meaningless.

I can hardly wait.


  • Ok, let me say this: The OS will be more important in the future than anyone can imagine right now.

    You’ll begin to to see micro-PC’s in various formats running a lightweight OS that boots from a flash drive (say 2gb thumbdrive built onto the board), running a low 5watt CPU with a full suite of productivity apps as well as full multimedia apps. I’ve personally been working on this myself contributing as much time as possible as well as resources and even testing time on it. It works, it’s stable, it’s actually really cool. The internet appliance of the future will have an OS, but it will be light. The hardware will be VERY affordable. Everyone will be connected together. But we’ll still have a desktop OS.

    xwiredtva had this to say on Feb 16, 2007 Posts: 172
  • The point of the article is not that we wont have an OS, but that the OS wont matter as much anymore, cause everything is online.  Which I do agree, I started using a Mac about two years ago.  And although I love the Mac, I still use a PC as well.  Both have there strength’s and weakness’.  But the “cool stuff the OS’s do anymore is pretty much eye candy.  Not to say that it all doesnt have a use, but I know, that myself for one hardly uses it because most of my time is spent looking at the web through a browser window.  I believe that if Apple and Microsoft really want to dominate the market. (I realize that microsoft already does) Then they need to focus more on making the internet experience with more of a “wow factor” and maybe intergrate the OS and desktop more into the web. had this to say on Feb 16, 2007 Posts: 1
  • It may not matter to a point. But when you compare how each handles different proccess there is always a clear winner, even if we use light weight apps (web apps). No matter what proccess you do with your calculator it’s gotta do the work based on a set of rules and priciples (The OS decides this). No matter what OS you use the web is the web, true.

    So in that respect it boils down to security and effeciency.

    In order to get the WOW factor you’ll need more OS based apps to render the code being sent to your system such as Flash and Ruby type stuff. This involved the OS much more than most people tend to give credit to. When your on the web your taking source code and compiling it instantly. It’s simple code and it’s complex code but the OS and the browser are doing all the work. The OS is managing resources, the browser is your compiler and the window is the result.

    xwiredtva had this to say on Feb 16, 2007 Posts: 172
  • Consider for a moment the following individuals:

    1) Musicians. The delay in accessing a web-based virtual synth or recording app would produce delays in the recording that would wreck the music.

    2) Gamers. Again, a second delay or two results in you (or your friends) getting fragged. No go.

    3) Graphics designers. The Photoshop Phreaks of the world won’t stand for momentary blips of service interruption, especially when that ruins their images. No. The apps will have to be local, and no-one has the time to send their massive pics back and forth just for editing.

    4) Movie designers. The same as #3 times about ten.

    5) Desire for local control of data and applications. See: libertarians, privacy advocates, and Americans in general.

    So you see, there are a whole host of reasons why the OS won’t be going away anytime soon. Simply put, having large apps remaining local is both more efficient and less bother. There is no need to be sending around massive files just to get your work done.

    Every six months or so an article like this one pops up and I just shake my head each time.

    Aurora77 had this to say on Feb 16, 2007 Posts: 35
  • Nice to see some response here!

    Sorry, Aurora77. Hope all the head shaking doesn’t hurt your neck. ;>)

    The point of all this was what an OS is and does is going to get redefined very very quickly now.

    People run applications, not operating systems, for the most part.

    I can run very intensive applications, including PhotoShop say, over a thin-client with moderate bandwidth. Screens aren’t hard to throw back and forth.

    Audio and so forth, video, all require a more realtime application, certainly, but the very vast majority of users, those who have are the volume money driving development, are not going to care too much abut privacy.

    As for gamers, well, not much of an OS on an XBox say, really. Or a Playstation. It’s the application running that matters, except for [email protected] and geeks.

    Imagine running Office 2010 or something like it on your DVD/PVR, saving your files to your Google/Secure account.

    James Bain had this to say on Feb 16, 2007 Posts: 33
  • To all of the Captain Obviouses, we know computers need operating systems.  Thanks for that contribution. 

    The point he’s trying to make is that WHICH operating system you choose won’t matter, not that you won’t need one at all.

    I think the foreseeable future will find a mix.  Personally, I’ve switched to Google email, Google calendar, online photo albums, etc.  I do still use Word and Excel but I could see myself switching those as well.

    However, I do need my local apps/files as well.  I use FCP and a host of high-end graphics in both Windows and Mac.  I don’t really see that changing.

    But for day-to-day average users, there is not only a compelling reason to move to OS-independent apps online, I think it’s happening as we speak.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Feb 16, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • I agree that the Mac-Windows war is over. I think one needs a completely different rethink of the OS.
    • Once you get into Creative Studio, CS becomes an OS on it’s own.
    So, local app create their own environment.
    • Others that do not need to be local, like administration, create a browser-OS, wich could use a make-over.
    • OS, even Mac, will need to become more simple. Maybe we saw a glimpse with the iPhone. The metaphore of the desktop will be only one of several that will be in use. People will become switchers, in a sense that they will switch machines, not OS.

    WAWA had this to say on Feb 16, 2007 Posts: 89
  • Well, what your talking about WAWA is a Net Appliance, sorta. More of a SMART Net Appliance, and by appliance I mean it looks like, acts like and even runs like a computer not a dishwasher…

    We had those in the past. But there time is NOW, Apple wake up smell the dub-cap. In today’s tech world WE CAN BUILD a system like your asking for. Imagine a 15.4” widescreen iMac style system. It’s got a 4gb storage (or more), built in OS that boots more or less to a screen asking you to select a program, in less than 5 seconds. Similar to what your saying with CS. The OS is NOT THERE to those using it, but is running in the background taking care of video, sound, memory, data, etc…

    Something like this, today, could be produced and priced around half the price of the iPhone. Could easily be synced with iTunes, iPhone, iPod, and .MAC for a seamless integrated appliance (there’s that word I don’t like again). Can play movies like Apple TV, can play your “Jukebox” like an iPod, can surf the web like a Mac, can even use online iWork and iLife style apps to serve your daily life a little easier, faster and more EFFECIENT.

    Ok, Apple and others there you go. That’s what I’ve been working on. Infrustructure is there, in place and ready. (sorry for the shameless plug). Embedded OS X is a reality. Net Appliance hardware like I mentioned is available to EVERYONE (norhtec) affordably. Now it’s up to the rest to do their work.


    xwiredtva had this to say on Feb 16, 2007 Posts: 172
  • Hmm… I’m of 2 or 3 minds about this article. Yes the OS is less important, but some of my apps are becoming more important - they’re my middleware.  If you want true OS independence then what you want to run has to run well on every OS. The web browser, flash etc isn’t up to it - we need an API shared by all OSes (and Apple doesn’t want to give away cocoa). Apps that run on Windows & Mac answer some of that issue. Anyway, there’s a lot more to play out here, but Windows will definitely become less important.

    As for getting to my data from anywhere - that’s a certainty. I’m actually expecting (hoping?) iChat will go ballistic with 10.5. My home Mac will ALWAYS be connected via iChat - so that when I log onto ANY Mac I can log in to iChat and connect to my home machine - either to get to my files, music etc (synchronise my iPod remotely?), or to remote control my home machine. Most of that needs the same OS in both places, of course.

    I’d love to see anything run anywhere but there are big players trying to own pieces of the pie - and they have more money to develop the killer apps of the future. I hope that the big players have no choice but to open up. Perhaps true independence requires an open source model.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Feb 17, 2007 Posts: 228
  • Who’d have believed 20 years ago the grunt computers of 2007 would have?

    Can Adobe Creative Suite run on a 1987 Mac? Tiger? Can Vista on a 386?

    The limitations we throw up for why James’ scenario isn’t likely soon are correct but will be solved in time by bandwidth you won’t be able to get you head around.

    The only delays will be caused by distance, like now with phone conversation across the world with the delay. But someone will probably solve that problem too.

    And don’t think the internet will overload if bandwidth increases too much. We got told in the ‘90s the internet was about to crash and burn because of traffic overload. Still waiting.

    But as I’ve said previously, I’m betting on the thin client scenario. The TV is the ultimate thin-client. You don’t need a TV studio in your house to watch TV, and in the future you won’t need application software in your computer to run applications.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Feb 17, 2007 Posts: 1209
  • Thanks for the debate here. I would like to add another point.
    The “real” computers used to do fortran or cobol, but with PC, originally a sophisticated typing machine, PC’s had to handle all sorts of app’s making the OS more important. Now I think we will get a sort of divergence again. The reason is the growing use of all sorts of ICT-products. Maybe you don’t like to have a cell phone, or gsm, but your environment forces you. I didn’t care about digital tv, we were “happy” with the cable. But the company decided to go digital (on the cable) and you had no choice. The Human Interface for my TV is really stupid but there is no choice. You are able to save a program to your disk but only if it is the program you’re watching !
    So some things improve, some things aren’t ready when there forced upon you and some things never get done. The User in this gets frustrated. Ok, he mastered Word, and then Photoshop, and yes he can edit his home movies, but now he can’t watch a tv program and record another, he has no idea how his cell phone bill is calculated, and he just acquired CS2 and Boom there is another version. So what we will see, I think, is that professionals will get their domain of expertise back.
    People need appliances that work, out of the box. And they will converge on applications they can master and not necessarily compete with professional, because there is no time to learn all these things.
    Even MacOs is much to my surprise not simple, as I discovered with switchers, it’s better, more reliable and to an “educated” user easy. But the younger have no intention to get educated in these areas. They expect them to work, and if they don’t work, they don’t feel ashamed or retarded like we did.
    You want the young to work, give them the tools. They don’t feel obliged like we did, to study the OS and the app’s. If the tool doesn’t work, it’s you who is “retarded”.

    WAWA had this to say on Feb 17, 2007 Posts: 89
  • You mean I’ve been working all these years building up to bigger and better monitors to run ever more powerful versions of Photoshop and its host of tool palettes properly, and now I’m being asked to imagine running it on my phone? Time to retire.

    cloudwall had this to say on Feb 17, 2007 Posts: 21
  • To cloudwell.
    I don’t know if you referring to my entry.
    The people I know, who are not pro’s and use Photoshop, are people who grew up with Shop. I remember version 2.5 being an upgrade I was lucky to ‘steal’ from my Printer (not the machine, the person). So for me it was, OS, MacWrite MacPaint Filemaker Plus etc. As the apps grew more powerful, it was only a relatively small upgrade for my brain. Now throw Photoshop as it is now, to a new user and I don’t think he will know where to start learning. So only a motivated young user will try to master a particular program + with the help of a real teacher.
    The new users will never touch Shop, and use a minimal app for their use, like iLife. Photoshop will never go to a iPhone. But in order to do something with your photo’s, people don’t turn automatically to PhS anymore.
    As OS-wars have been compared to religious wars, (e.g. by Umberto Eco) I would say, Look out a whole bunch of pagans are on their way.

    WAWA had this to say on Feb 17, 2007 Posts: 89
  • WAWA,
    The author states “Imagine being able to run PhotoShop from your phone (thin client).” I’d rather not. I’ve been using Photoshop since its release, at that time on a Mac SE, not a great experience. As a daily user of Photoshop, currently at CS2, I can’t imagine it being a satisfying or productive experience on a phone, even something as graphically advanced as the iphone. Sending an e-mail, writing a novel, even cruising the web, okay. Extensive editing on an 11x17 photo, that’s a stretch.

    cloudwall had this to say on Feb 17, 2007 Posts: 21
  • I’ve used PhotoShop from version 1.0 on, from when it came on four floppies I think it was. No, Adobe won’t be issuing PhotoShop for your phone, BUT they might eventually have a ‘Phono’Shop product that can retouch the images on your handheld. And you could always connect via thin-client, Citrixy-like, to a box running PhotoShop. Just can’t imagine you being too productive. You could, and here’s the application, do a quick jump in on someone else’s installation who was having problems and tell them, or show them, how to do something. Being able to be there will be possible Doing AutoCAD? Not for any real work.

    James Bain had this to say on Feb 17, 2007 Posts: 33
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