As I write this, Apple and Microsoft are feverishly putting the final touches on their next major OS releases. Apple’s OS X 10.6, better known as Snow Leopard, promises to be an evolutionary improvement over its already well-received 10.5 Leopard.
Microsoft is under a bit more pressure, as the less-than-stellar buzz surrounding Vista has made a successful Windows 7 launch — now slated for quarter four of this year — even more critical to the company’s future. Two and a half years after hitting the market, Vista commands less than half of XP’s market share, an ominous sign that consumers and enterprises alike simply want their computers to work and aren’t overly keen to upgrade.
While the relative success of these two products may matter a whole lot to their respective vendors, the harsh reality is desktop operating systems matter less now to consumers than at any previous point. Ever since the first Macintosh computer burst onto the scene in 1984, Apple and Microsoft have been in a tit-for-tat battle over whose OS is best.
However, it’s a battle that simply doesn’t matter much these days, and one that will become even less relevant to both enterprises and consumers in the years to come. Here’s why:
- Interoperability: While computers in the ’80s and early ’90s represented the technological equivalent of the Tower of Babel — all speaking different languages and never able to engage in anything approaching a meaningful exchange — platform-agnostic applications, file formats and hardware standards have made it easy to move data seamlessly between machines.
- Webification: The arrival of the commercialized, broadly available Internet in the mid-’90s changed the landscape forever. Fast-evolving Web standards and cloud-based applications have since shifted developers’ focus from the desktop to the browser. Ubiquitous, cheap broadband access promises to further expand the capabilities of today’s cloud-based apps. During the next few years, locally installed applications likely will take a back seat to Internet-delivered services.
- Mobilization: Conventional desktop and laptop computers are yesterday’s news. Everyone who needs one already has one. On the other hand, mobile platforms, which are driven by handheld technology and increased wireless broadband availability, represent the OS battleground of tomorrow. And it’s not just in North America and Europe: To an entrepreneur in India whose first Internet-connected computer is a smart phone, the Windows vs. Mac debate has never even been on the radar.
- Simplification: Back in the early years of the so-called PC revolution, learning curves were a lot steeper. The user community was composed largely of early adopters and reflected their pioneering spirit. As PCs moved mainstream, however, the audience cared less about geek cred and more about making it work. My mother-in-law hardly cares whether Mac beats PC. She does care that her machine, whatever brand it carries, lets her e-mail her grandchildren without having to jump through hoops.
The dueling Mac vs. PC ad campaigns may get headlines, but as long as a particular OS is good enough, percentage-point shifts in market share mean little to the rest of us. Unlike in years past, choosing one OS over another no longer relegates you to a specific community of users or capabilities. The days of lock-in to a specific platform are over. The walls have come down between competing hardware standards, and consistencies between data types now matter more than the underlying hardware that runs it all.
In my own home office, Macs coexist happily with a broad range of Windows machines, and data moves easily between them without anyone giving much thought to platform choice. We no longer run operating systems: We run applications, and we manage our data. As long as the OS supports this very basic, necessary functionality — and generally speaking, all flavors of OS X, Windows and Linux offerings accomplish this — the final OS choice doesn’t hold as much weight as it once did.
Suffice to say, the generation-long OS game is pretty much finished. Vista’s rocky reception proves end users are less interested in upgrading to the coolest new thing than in simply keeping their machines running.
As apps move online and mobile handsets take over as the drivers of tomorrow’s computing, today’s operating systems will become what they should have been all along: commodities that work silently in the background to let us get work done. 8
Carmi Levy is a technology journalist and analyst with experience launching help desks and managing projects for major financial services institutions. He offers consulting advice on enterprise infrastructure, mobility and emerging social media. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.