Operating systems don’t matter much anymore

We’ve been dealing with operating systems for decades. “Mac OS X is better than Windows!” “Why switch to Windows 7 when XP works perfectly?” “You have it all wrong. Linux rules.” Such arguments are about to become history.

Thanks to advances in virtualization, cloud technology, and the web, it’s less and less important for users to know what operating system is behind their desktop screens – or, for that matter, the screens of their tablets and smartphones.

Do not mistake yourself. Operating systems will remain important as long as we use computers. But for the most part, they will only matter to the people behind the scenes.

Look at the office. More and more applications can be used with a simple web browser. Indeed, Google’s Chrome operating system is built around the idea that a browser is all a user really needs, and Google extends that idea through a software ecosystem that includes Gmail for email and Google Docs for desktop software. The primacy of the web browser comes just as advances in web technology, like the rise of HTML5, make the browser increasingly powerful. (And if you don’t believe HTML5 is a real breakthrough, then you haven’t noticed that Adobe, for all intents and purposes, is ditching its flagship multimedia format, Flash, for HTML5.)

Meanwhile, software as a service, which was previously reserved for business applications, is becoming more commonplace in user settings. It’s not just Google’s plan. Other options include programs like Dropbox, which give users universal access to storage without the need for a file server. Meanwhile, Apple, with iCloud, is moving both data storage and services such as media service, email and contact management to the cloud. And Microsoft is also moving in this direction, with offers like Office 365.

In the business world, the old client/server model is being phased out as cloud-based services support more and more functions. Users – and sometimes CIOs and CTOs, for that matter – increasingly have no idea where their applications and data “live”. IT staff may know that the cloud resides in a given data center, but that’s it. A similar progression is happening in the consumer world, with personal storage and services moving to the cloud.

Behind it all, in the data centers that make up the cloud, rack after rack of servers, virtual operating system instances run as needed to meet user demands. Back in IT, it is no longer necessary to meet this demand by eliminating a physical server from storage. Instead, an automated program or system administrator simply requests more storage or CPU power.

All of this means that, in businesses and at home, the operating system you use and the type of device you use — PC, tablet or smartphone — will be of decreasing importance (for users, it i.e. how it all happens behind the scenes is still going to matter a lot). The things that will matter to users will be having enough bandwidth and a good web browser.

In short, computers will become a commodity. As long as our Internet connection remains active, we will pay no more attention to our operating system than we currently pay to the details of how electricity arrives in our homes.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was state of the art and 300 bps was a fast internet connection — and we loved it! He can be contacted at [email protected]

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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