The current state of operating systems

I’ve been having some conversations lately about the current state of operating systems and computer technology in general. With the recent announcement of OS X Lion and Steve Ballmer’s claims that they are betting big on Windows 8, it’s an interesting time for operating systems.

In some ways the last decade or so has not been so interesting for desktop operating systems. Only three operating systems are still in popular use and all of them are more or less the same in terms of how they work. The differences between them from a user point of view are mostly superficial. However, each of these operating systems has a different story to tell. Windows has been pretty much stagnant from Windows XP through Vista up to Windows 7. The bold plans that were supposed to be part of Longhorn never came through. On the other hand OS X has been slowly but steadily marching ahead. OS X along with the iLife suite and the iOS devices has been gently pushing personal computing into the future. However, it’s becoming clearer that the controls that Apple places on it’s technology is here to stay and will probably only get more stringent in the years to come. Whether or not the desktop Mac gets completely locked down remains to be seen. Finally Linux on the desktop never really took off (despite some good attempts) and even with Canonical and Ubuntu doing some great work, it doesn’t seem Linux will see strong market penetration any time soon.

So where does all this leave us? I think it’s high time for a Microsoft resurgence. They have an army of really intelligent capable engineers spread throughout the world. They have some amazing projects being incubating in their Labs (and more smart people). Equally importantly, they have immense financial assets and deep, deep inroads to the corporate sector. Though they’re not in danger of losing their immense market lead anytime soon, they  haven’t done anything innovative or exciting in a long long time. And they’re also far far behind in both cloud and mobile computing. But at a time when there are doubts starting to fly about Apple’s intentions (and how they’ll play with companies like Flash and Adobe), it could be just the opportunity that MS needs to make a strong comeback. They’ll need something bold and unique, but there doesn’t seem to be much confidence in their ability to pull off what they need to do.

Being a Linux user for a good few years I think it’s represent some really technology, unfortunately it fails when it comes to getting the little things working properly. Ubuntu does a good job of making the user experience smooth, and I think it’s the best user-facing Linux distribution currently available. But there’s no Netflix for Linux, Flash still has problems and if you’re stepping out of the Ubuntu zone there’s a considerable amount of potential tinkering that you might have to get things working. I personally use Arch Linux and prefer it over Ubuntu mainly because of the bleeding edge packages, but it kinda sucks when you don’t have suspend/resume working for months on end. Once upon a time when I was just diving into the world of Linux and the mysteries of the command line, spending a few hours trying to get graphics working after an upgrade was something of an adventure. But now it gets old really quickly. I’m getting into the phase of “grown-up computing” and I want to use my computer to get stuff done as opposed to figuring out why stuff isn’t working. Should I just sue for peace and stick with Ubuntu on the desktop? Maybe, but at that point I might as well just get a Mac.

Right now, it seems to me that OS X is hands down the best desktop operating system on the market. Unless you’re tied to some particular piece of software on Windows, OS X practically runs everything you would want it to. Of course, with Apple divorcing itself from Adobe and Oracle, it’s interesting to see how long that will last. If Microsoft can’t get its act together and make a comeback, the time might be right for another player to come up. One possible answer is Google with Android or Chrome OS, but I have my doubts if it will work. For one thing, the current state of Android phones seems to suggest that just providing part of the software layer won’t be enough.

A strong entrant to the desktop computing market will need to offer a combined hardware and software combo (even if the software is leased to other players). I’m thinking Apple-level hardware with Ubuntu on top of it. The hardware control would mean fine-tuned and well-tested drivers so that things actually work. However the free software would mean that it would be an open and hackable machine. It works great when you need it to, but you can hack it if you want it to. Canonical might decide to open a hardware wing, especially since Dell seems to have stopped offering Ubuntu as an option.

I think that the lull in operating system activity is coming to an end. As we get more used to the idea of storing our data in the cloud all the time and the web slowly fuses with the desktop, we need the core technologies that power our machines to change as well. However, the change is not always for the best. Furthermore since our livelihood depends on no small part on our machines, it’s in our best interests to make sure that our operating systems do what we want them to. For that reason, as much as I admire Apple’s dedication to perfection  and can understand why they want control of the platform, the lack of a free, open and high-quality alternative does make me uncomfortable. I hope someone stands up to pick up the slack.

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