Once upon a time, all of us, from avid computer hobbyists to IT pros and computer “experts”, were enlisted in the OS wars. Divided into three basic camps – Windows, Linux and Mac – we battled passionately for our operating systems of choice. Apple put out anti-PC ad campaigns and Windows users wouldn’t be caught dead running Ubuntu or Suse (of course, within the Linux world, there were dozens of distro-dedicated sub-groups fighting amongst themselves, but we won’t get into that).
What happened to that fervor and fierce loyalty? Today consumers happily switch from their Android phones to their iPads to their Windows 8 notebooks throughout the day without missing a beat, and most IT professionals are supporting hybrid networks where a Windows domain controller might sit right next to an Apache web server, both of which have OS X clients connecting to them on the LAN. This diversification has brought us both benefits and complications.
As we go forward into a cloudy future, will operating systems matter even less than they do today? Will the cloud become the OS? If so, what will that mean for the end user and the IT pro? Let’s look at the trend and the possible consequences of a world where there is one OS to rule them all.
In the old days (i.e., just a few years ago), operating systems had steep learning curves. Apple’s claims of intuitiveness notwithstanding, I’ve seen more than one long-time Windows user give up in frustration after spending time trying to figure out how to do some simple task on a Mac. It was just as bad, or worse, for someone who had learned computing on a Mac and tried to use a PC. And put either one of at a Linux machine and watch the blood, sweat and tears start to flow: “compile my own kernel, you say? What’s a root? Bash? I didn’t say anything derogatory.”
Today, although the advocates of each might want to tout what makes it unique (and better), the fact is that operating systems – whether we’re talking desktop or mobile – are getting more and more alike as the software vendors “borrow” one another’s top features and ways of doing thing. After years of claims from Steve Jobs that Microsoft copied Apple by creating a graphical interface, Mary Jo Foley (and many others) noted in 2007 how many of OS X Leopard’s “new” features resembled those that came out first in Windows Vista.
Meanwhile, the Linux desktop – once a strange and mysterious and rather plain-jane interface – became more and more Windows-like (and/or Mac-like) to the point where it’s hard to tell at a glance which of the three operating systems is running on a given machine (assuming the Windows computer is in desktop mode rather than 8/8.1’s “modern” mode – which almost nobody I know uses on a desktop/non-touch laptop machine).
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the newest desktop OS: Google Chrome OS. Technically it’s a variation of Linux, but with a different approach: the web browser pretty much is the operating system. The premise is that the majority of user activities on the desktop now are web-based; in addition to traditional surfing of sites for passive viewing of information, we communicate through web mail, social networking sites, and blogs. Certainly, if the browser is all you need, the operating system matters little; all the popular web browsers will get the job done (although some do it better than others with certain sites).
These days there is actually a lot more differentiation – at least from a visual perspective – between mobile operating systems than desktops. iOS still has its own particular look (which hasn’t changed much at all since v1 back in 2007. Windows Mobile underwent a huge transformation, morphing into the tile-based Windows Phone OS that was a preview of Microsoft’s formerly-known-as-Metro GUI. Android is a master of disguise; each phone vendor has its own UI that it installs on some or all of the phones it makes (Samsung Touchwiz, Motorola Moto, HTC Sense). And within that interface or even more so by rooting the device, you can make it look pretty much anyway you want it to.
But looks aside, functionalities are very similar. The typical user can do everything he/she wants with any of these operating systems. Oddly enough, as the desktop experience has become more browser-centric, the mobile experience has become less so. On the small screens, individual apps seem to work better for accessing specific information and performing tasks than viewing web pages, even those that are optimized for mobile use. But the browser is still there if you need it, and with phone screens approaching the 6 inch size, browsers become a lot more user-friendly.
Still, I see far more passion and loyalty toward phone vendors and/or phone operating systems than on the desktop. But that loyalty is often confined to the particular device type. Just because a person loves Android and wouldn’t use any other phone, that doesn’t necessarily mean that person loves Linux. And I know plenty of Linux fans and Windows stalwarts who have pledged their allegiance to their iPhones. However, the user experience with phones seems headed in the same direction as desktops – that is, they’re all getting more alike.
For instance, Apple added a notification bar to iOS 5, something Android has had all along and many commentators noted that iOS 7 seems to bear a family resemblance to Windows Phone. As mobile operating systems get more and more alike (which is inevitable, as the companies respond to customer demands for the same great features they see in competitors’ models), I suspect some of the fierce loyalty we see now in that arena will fade away, too.
Eventually we may end up with operating systems that look and act very much the same, with little other than the brand name to set them apart from one another. Of course, there will always be some to whom “name” is everything, as well as uber geeks who care about the “under the hood” differences. But for the average end-user, the OS wars may be coming to an end.