Where Are Operating Systems Headed?

Are operating systems becoming irrelevant? Some say the monolithic desktop operating system is dead. Others see the recent release of Vista and new twists in Apple's OS X

February 3, 2007

10 Min Read
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If one were to try, as technology writers are wont to do, to characterize the state of operating systems at this approximate midpoint in the first century of OS history, one phrase that might spring to mind is existential angst. Or maybe identity crisis. I mean, consider:

On the one hand, we are confronted with splashy operating systems news heralding new OS generations and directions and features, from the long-awaited release of Microsoft's Windows Vista and the new twists in Apple's Mac OS X to the peculiar maneuvers of Microsoft and Oracle regarding Linux—which, if nothing else, state loud and clear that Linux is an operating system force to be reckoned with.

On the other hand, we're confronted with assertions that the monolithic desktop operating system is dead, that Linux will never make it big on the desktop, and that Sun's Java can make operating systems unnecessary—or even that Java is an operating system.

Lines that once seemed clear are being smudged. Perhaps we delude ourselves to think that we once knew the difference between a "big" operating system and a "little" one, but today the biggest operating system ever written runs on desktop personal computers, not mainframes, and desktop operating systems are migrating to telephones and other consumer devices, while there is a trend for the "little" operating systems developed specifically for those devices to take on many of the capabilities of desktop operating systems as those devices themselves become more like computers.

And, as further evidence that the apocalypse is upon us, you can, with Apple's blessing, run Windows Vista natively on your Macintosh.What are operating systems coming to?

Is Vista the Last Version of Desktop Windows?

Last fall, Gartner Research dramatically predicted that Vista would be the last version of Microsoft Windows. Yes, these are the same people who reported that Apple's iTunes sales were plummeting, only to recant a few days later. And yes, Steve Ballmer has flatly denied Gartner's claim about Vista.

Still, there's reason to take Gartner's underlying point seriously: With Microsoft now running five years between major releases, Gartner is probably right that the current Windows architecture is unsustainably complex. The future of Windows, Gartner believes, is a modularized operating system sold at least in part through a subscription model and enabled by virtualization at the core.

Microsoft says Gartner has it wrong, but the company is clearly embracing all the elements of Gartner's vision: virtualization, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), and even hints of modularization in the structure of Vista.Microsoft initially viewed the SaaS trend as a threat to its application software business but is now exploring how to embrace the movement for its own benefit. Jeff Raikes cautions that Microsoft doesn't hear of a lot of people who want to run Word over the Internet, but says that collaborative infrastructure software lends itself to this model much more. The BBC saw Microsoft's push into online software services via Office Live as one of the big stories of 2006.

It's conventional wisdom today that some software functionality is better delivered in a subscription/service or hosted model, while some software is better run natively. A lot of bets are already down on which functions belong where, and about the only safe prediction about the SaaS model is that both operating systems and applications are going to be deconstructed and reinvented over the next few years.

But the end of desktop OS has been breathlessly predicted at least since 1999 and still shows no sign of happening.

Did Linux Miss Its Window On the Desktop?

(Sorry about the terrible metaphor.) In fact, there is a serious fight for the desktop, or at least for the single-digit desktop marketshare that Microsoft doesn't have.No matter how slow Vista sales are, it would be shocking if they weren't good enough to keep this from being the year that Linux steals significant desktop marketshare from Microsoft. Linux is getting great press, but it still has a geekware image problem with business buyers. It does, in fact, give Linux some business cred that Red Hat bought JBoss, got itself listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and posted impressive profits last year in the face of Microsoft's embracing of a rival Linux distro and the unveiling of Oracle as a Linux distro. And Oracle and Microsoft both advanced Linux legitimacy with their actions, whatever their intentions were, while SCO seems to be fading away in its legal threat to Linux. All good for desktop Linux.

One might ask, which desktop Linux? Microsoft promoted SuSE in its deal with Novell. Linspire, which started life with a company and product name that taunted Microsoft, made waves last year by releasing Freespire 1.0, a Linux distro that tweaks free-software purists by mixing together open-source software and licensed proprietary drivers, codecs, and apps.

The OSS OS community faces other issues, like the widening gap between the Free Software Foundation and the Linux core developers, and between those who will stick with GPL2 and those who may embrace GPL3. OSDL is working to bring order to the Linux desktop, but Linux still isn't there with the apps and drivers the market requires. It's not for lack of trying: Linux developers working on wireless network drivers, for example, know that the chipmakers don't make it easy. But the biggest challenge to desktop Linux remains one of perception.

Meanwhile, hopes to see Linux steal seats from Windows could be dimmed by increasing acceptance of Mac OS X, owing, ironically, to the fact that the hardware that runs OS X will also now run Windows.

Big Versus Little: Are the Categories Breaking Down?

While Microsoft is a little embarrassed about the five-year march to Vista, IBM is bragging about its planned five-year project to upgrade z/OS, the operating system for its System z mainframe computers. The mainframe world is a different place. Although server farms and distributed services have been eating away at the mainframe market, IBM is bullish about its mainframe business, and one of the enablers of that business seems to be "little" virtual Linux servers.Today the distinction between "big" and "little" operating systems is not really between mainframes and desktop machines, but between computers and consumer electronic devices such as cell phones and MP3 players. And here the identity crisis of operating systems is in full fugue.

Do you need or want a stripped-down version of a desktop OS in your cell phone or other device? Will you get one regardless of whether you want it? Microsoft keeps coming up with new versions of Windows for small devices, Linux is big in little devices, and as I write this, rumors are flying that Apple may join the little OS battle with a stripped-down Mac OS X. Would that be Mac OS x? These immigrants from "big" OS land compete with Java-enabled OSes and with some formidable entrenched embedded OSes, especially Symbian, which is the world leader in smartphone operating systems and has most of the phone players as investors. (The U.S. market for cell phones is an oddity, where most phones run Palm OS, Windows Mobile, or Blackberry software.)

As evidence that some of the players are rethinking, consider the odd saga of Palm, which spun off its OS to a new company, PalmSource, saw the spun-off company release a competitive device, and now is paying ACCESS, the current owner of PalmSource, for the use of the Palm OS source code. Oh, and Palm OS now runs on top of Linux. Not only are "little" operating systems not so little, they are sometimes layered on top of one another.

Are Operating Systems Becoming Irrelevant?

Operating systems on top of operating systems: Arguably the most disruptive trend in operating systems today is virtualization, a topic we explored in December 2006. Apple's computers now run Windows through virtualization, thanks to Parallels and VMware. Mainframes, such as IBM's z Series and server farms, allocate their computing resources efficiently and support otherwise incompatible applications and operating systems through virtualization. And if you believe Gartner Research, virtualization is the trick that will save Microsoft Windows from collapsing under its own bloated mass.And the player we intend to watch as all of this virtualization action plays out? XenSource.

Are Operating Systems Unnecessary?

BEA "is cutting out the operating system," an article in The Register says, by using a JVM to talk directly to the hardware and to a VMware hypervisor. So does this mean there is no operating system? Or is the hypervisor, or maybe the JVM, the actual operating system?

A virtualizing hypervisor meets some of the criteria of an operating system, but when its purpose is to support conventional operating systems, calling it an OS would be confusing. As for Java as an OS, that can be close to true: A project documented at www.jbox.dk shows how little you need to add to a JVM to make it perform all the functions of an operating system. Then, too, requirements are different in consumer devices, and here Java has to be counted among the operating system options, even if it isn't truly an operating system—adding to the identity crisis of operating systems this year.

What's the Future of Operating Systems?

We'll make one prediction: However much life may imitate art, the operating system of the future will not look like the Hollywood OS (okay, see Wikipedia).

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