Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The next step in Operating Systems

Last week's column resulted in some interesting feedback, thank you! One reader pointed me to a 16 year old demo of NeXTSTEP Release 3 in which you can clearly see that Graphical User Interfaces and easy-to-use applications today in operating systems like OS X, Ubuntu, Windows Vista and BeOS are nearly the same as 16 years ago in NeXTSTEP. So what can you learn from this? That the operating system itself doesn't matter. Because if it would, we should have seen some more advancements in the past 16 years.

What does matter both in the enterprise environment as well as to consumers are applications. To business people this is a no-brainer. So why is nearly everybody in the IT industry talking about the operating system? And do people in IT departments get upset that Microsoft will stop selling Windows XP, while they are not ready to upgrade to Vista? To be honest: do we care?

From an user perspective we shouldn't care. Because an operating system's primary function is to hide the details of the unintelligent hardware from the application. So that an application developer can focus on real functionality and not waste time and money to get some of the basics of his application working on the hardware. If you look at the average level of sophistication in enterprise applications in use today, it is no surprise that "the computer says no" from time to time.

Life would be simple if there was one universal operating system free of charge. Quite some people believe that Linux is that operating system and are putting a lot of effort on pushing in this direction. But such an universal operating system is nearly impossible to create. The huge variety of applications on different form factors of hardware put such a wide range of options that the OS developer can maybe create such software only with a myriad of configuration and tuning options. Hardly anything that follows the "keep it simple" principle, as you need the equivalence of a rocket scientist to get it working properly.

We users should push the industry towards a different direction. What I call the "software appliance road". It is likely that we are willing to pay for a software application, because an application can add value to what we are trying to achieve. The application comes packaged with an operating system which will allow it to run on any hardware form factor the application was designed for.

How can we achieve this goal? I believe the answer lies in hardware virtualization. Virtualization will allow us to separate software from hardware. Once we keep pushing in that direction I bet you will see that hypervisor software (which allows the execution of a standardized virtual hardware) will be implemented in hardware. The device and hardware component builders of this world can continue building more efficient hardware (energy waste comes to mind) and application developers can pick the operating system they think is best suited for the application. This also means that not every application will be available to run on every hardware. But once we all get into "appliance mode" we don't care.

A challenge? You bet it is. But money rules. Don't spend anything on "the latest and greatest" if you can't qualify and quantify tangible results and added value. At some point the industry will listen.

P.S. Yesterday on Dutch news there was an item on a poll sponsered by Logitech about the amount of technology purchased by consumers who don't know how to operate it. In 29% of cases only one member of the household is able to operate it. The amount "invested" is 8 billion euros (12.5 billion dollars) in the Netherlands which has 7.2 million households. Food for thought.

© Peter Bodifée 2008. All rights reserved

No comments: