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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Who needs operating systems anymore? Not you

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Who needs operating systems anymore? Not you

"I can foresee a time when they will matter very little to users"

I write a lot about operating systems: Android, Linux, Windows, Mac OS and anything else you can think of. That's because I've always been fascinated by them.

I started working with technology in the late 1970s. Along the way, I've worked with IBM's mainframe OS/360, Unix on DEC PDP-11, and that ancestor of all PC operating systems, CP/M-80. Operating systems ruled your user experience; you had to care about which one you used.

But more and more, we aren't going to care.

Oh, if you're an engineer, programmer or techie you're still going to care. And I'm in no danger of running out of OSs to write about in my lifetime. But I can foresee a time when they will matter very little to users.

I'm not just talking about clueless users -- "lusers," as disgusted techies dubbed them long ago. They will always be with us, if we're to believe the results of a recent Vouchercloud survey, in which 11% of the U.S. respondents said HTML is a sexually transmitted disease, 27% thought a gigabyte was a South American insect, and 23% identified an MP3 as a Star Wars robot.

No, even users who are aware that a motherboard isn't the deck of a cruise ship are going to stop thinking much about the operating systems their devices run.

If you want to see how little an OS can matter to the user experience, check out Google's Chromebook. It runs a Linux variation, but most of its users probably don't give that a thought. That's because the experience is ruled, not by the OS, but by the Chrome Web browser and all the software-as-a-service programs you're likely to run on a Chromebook, such as Gmail, Google Apps, Google Drive, Google Music and Google+ Hangouts, a de facto videoconferencing system.

Chromebooks were a niche product not so long ago, but market analyst firm NPD reported in December that they held more than 20% of the U.S. commercial PC market by the end of 2013. My view is that Chromebooks are going to challenge Windows PCs for desktop dominance as the decade continues.

Cloud-based applications like Google Docs have a lot to do with the end of the OS's dominance. It may be that even Microsoft, the king of the OS world, is preparing for this. Microsoft now offers the cloud-based Office 365. And plenty of other companies are following suit. Intuit's QuickBooks Online, for example, runs on all the major Web browsers, regardless of platform, as well as Apple iOS and Google's Android.

So companies are letting end users run the programs they want on any platform. They're doing this by moving applications to the cloud. Even when there is a local client, major business software vendors such as SAP are betting on Web-based HTML5 apps rather than operating system-specific clients.

Sure, there will still be some programs that demand powerful local resources, such as Adobe Photoshop, Apple Final Cut Pro and massively multiplayer online role-playing games that require a PC. But for most users (I'm going to put the figure at 95%), nearly all of their applications (99% doesn't seem unreasonable) will run off the cloud, and that is where users will store their data as well. What OS will they use to get to the cloud? Whatever.

As long as they can get to the apps they want, users couldn't care less.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

Read more about operating systems in Computerworld's Operating Systems Topic Center.


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