Faruk At.eş


OS 2.0

An awful lot has happened the past month in Operating System land. The big names in the technology sector are currently fighting tooth and nail to secure their place of “ruler” in tomorrow’s world of Next-gen OSes, and since I deem a lot of this fighting to be quite silly, I’m dubbing it the OS 2.0 wars—a nod to the “Web 2.0” nonsense of this past decade, where, much like in the OS world, the denominator “2.0” was ill-fitting and misguided.

Sidenote: if you’re old school, please note that I am not talking about OS/2 here. At all.

Tangentially related to these developments was last week’s discussion between Peter-Paul Koch (follow-up), Dion Almaer, John Gruber and myself (and my follow-up), as well as countless others over Twitter. This discussion deliberated iPhone apps versus Web Apps and how they stack up against one another. It was instigated by Paul Graham’s essay, Apple’s Mistake.

The main point all parties in this discussion agree on is that with the addition of Device APIs to WebKit the browser would catapult itself immediately into the position of being one of the next-generation Operating Systems, and it would be great because it would be built on entirely open standards. Yadda yadda yadda.

All of that is just hypothetical talk for the time being. Going on in the real world of right now is the landslide of recent announcements and releases by various companies all competing for a slice of the Next Generation OS pie. A quick summary of which companies and what product(s) they’re working on they hope will accomplish this unrealistic goal somehow.

Microsoft

I suspect many people saw this coming, but Microsoft is now officially positioning Silverlight as the new .Net for developing applications with. Imagine Flash games and websites; now imagine the execution of them in a slightly worse fashion, and now imagine that as, say, your new photo editing software. Excited about that prospect? Didn’t think so.

Microsoft appears to remain as dense as they’ve been the past ten years: trying to get the dominant position in a market by using their same old tactics from the past: copy someone else’s idea, abuseleverage your money to force your product onto people, piss all over the notion of open standards, and somehow again manage to completely forget about concepts such as a great user experience or innovation. Hey, those don’t matter if you have an 85% market share, right?

Google

Sadly, Google is trying too hard to mimic Microsoft even though those tactics only worked for Microsoft in a past where the industry landscape was significantly different, and whose tactics will never work again to any such a lucrative and powerful extent.

First they came with Android, now Chrome OS; the two platforms appear not to share any code or frameworks, so Android developers are at no advantage whatsoever when it comes to developing apps for Chrome OS.

Another area where they confusingly behave just like Microsoft: announce early, release late (and do a crappy job polishing up the User Experience of the product, but I digress). And like all stupid things, Google’s Microsoft-aping also comes in threes: forgo taking control of the full stack, stick to doing the software only and not even play as little a role as enforcing arbiter for your hardware partners. That whole “the hardware guys will figure out their part”-approach must be some surefire way to make great products.

If anyone at Google has ever heard of The Apple Playbook, they sure are keeping their mouths shut very well.

HP, Sony, Dell, etc…

What’s the biggest thing any of these companies have tried to bring to market in recent memory? Netbooks. No, let’s be more specific: Netbooks running either Linux or Windows. In other words, a cheap-feeling OS on cheap-feeling hardware. Yeah, that’ll get customers excited.

These guys are industry giants, and yet they’re behaving like castrated cowards, lacking any semblance of balls to try something on their own. Instead, they just sit around and wait for Google to hand them their next move, not realizing that it steers them all collectively towards the land of irrelevance. The only reason these companies will continue to exist is because not everyone can or wants to buy Apple products—which is totally fair—but they’re slowly relinquishing whatever chances they still have at being an inspiring, innovative and relevant technology company in this industry.

Litl

Leave it to David to make Goliath look the fool; an innovative and ballsy approach at making a brand new computer, complete with its own Operating System. A total break away from the traditional mold of computing devices and operating systems. Who is behind it? Some unknown startup with a small team of 40 people who seem to have come out of nowhere. It’ll take a lot of guts, dedication, vision and hard work to bring about the kind of revolution the Litl computer aspires to create, but I couldn’t be more thrilled to see these people give it a try. I’m keeping an eye on these guys, even if just out of curiosity to see where they go.

Apple

They would only have to start adding aggressive device API support to mobileSafari—which they might do if the hardware becomes powerful enough for great performance it’s in their business interests to do so—in order to have established one next-generation OS automatically: the iPhone and iPod Touch are King and Queen of the handheld device industry in terms of usage, and web apps for them would definitely skyrocket if (mobile) Safari could access more APIs from the device.

As it stands, Apple are happily content being mum on the issue (as always) with regards to the next release of Mac OS X or the next iPhone OS, let alone doing something so outrageously bold with Webkit. They could even be developing a tablet or netbook that might create yet another platform for developers to build for, but if that is the case, it at least seems likely that the device would run a variant of OS X and have the same or similar Cocoa frameworks again, making it much easier for developers to get onboard. Google, Microsoft: you hearing this?

Palm

Poor Palm. They did a great job with WebOS and the Pre, and they’re actually doing some of that device API-work for WebKit I mentioned with Apple. They still have some performance and User Experience polishing to do before they can really compare to Apple, but already they’re suffering from declining Pre sales and a partner that doesn’t really help out.

I applaud Palm for their WebOS vision and execution, as well as their willingness to bet the company on this, but perhaps Webkit simply isn’t quite ready just yet to be a full-fledged Operating System, no matter how much work you put into extending it for that purpose. Timing, it seems, is against them. The big question now is if they’ll last long enough to ride the wave when it finally does come.

RIM

Research in Motion is a big fat N/A or Not Applicable until they get their act together. They produce myriad devices with each their own OS, no centralized application store and—worst of all—bafflingly varying experiences for the use between each phone. The only “RIM Experience” I can recall from using their phones might as well not have had the I and M capitalized.

Adobe

Attempting to get the Government to use Flash and PDF so that they maintain a foothold. It’s not really an Operating System effort per se, but clearly Adobe would love for Flash to be some next-gen OS derivative for the Web, at least.

The one thing that Adobe has accomplished (with their acquisition of Flash) is owning what is perhaps the world’s largest consistent runtime environment. Sure, “the Web” is really the world’s largest platform, but in that regard we really should say “the browser”, and no browser has (nor has ever had) a bigger, cross-platform market share than Flash has. Unlike the browsers, Flash is the same on Windows and Mac, whether it’s in IE, Firefox, Safari or Opera.

Unfortunately, it’s also equally crappy in all of them, and since it lives on the platform of Open Standards, its proprietary nature will continue to shoot Adobe in the foot. Flash, like Silverlight, cannot become a next-gen OS simply because it has the worst of both worlds on the best of both world’s platform. But unlike Silverlight, at least, they have a huge market share.

Which, you know, is great for Farmville.

Facebook

And that brings us to the last one for today: Facebook. What started as a college students-limited social network has become a massive, 350-million users rich application platform. They’re still focused on bringing people together, but it’s hard to deny that their application platform kind of overshadows that effort by now. Facebook is the Operating System with the friendliest face—your own. A more anthropomorphized rendition of what an OS could be would have to sprout legs and start calling me pet names, for one.

But then I believe the next release of Farmville already has that feature.

Conclusion

It’s perfectly obvious there won’t be just one OS that will dominate an entire tech landscape the next 15-20 years, and I don’t think any of these companies is gunning for that. What worries me is not any of the criticisms above, but the fragmentation of what was once more or less one industry. It is both a blessing and a curse for someone like me, who wants to create software products and websites for people to use. This fragmentation is healthy in that it creates strong competition and forces companies to keep up and innovate more, or fall by the wayside. Conversely, it’s creating many more choices for consumers and developers, and too much choice is bad.

The only thing I’m actually concerned about in all of this is how many companies and, in particular, analysts and investors focus on market share statistics. Let’s make one thing really clear here: (OS) market share is a metric that mattered in the ‘90s. Today, not so much anymore, especially given the impending fragmentation of our industry. Nowadays, all that market share numbers do is contribute to attracting developers, but they’re far from the only thing that does anymore. The iPhone had a 0% market share and already, before the SDK was even announced, it attracted thousands upon thousands of developers.

Make a great product that your customers absolutely love to use, ensure that it does whatever its purpose is really well, and make sure to do all that in a way that is (very) profitable. Those are the key facets to doing something worthwhile in this industry; everything else is just colored bubbles.

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About me

Faruk Ateş

Faruk Ateş is a designer, developer, and entreprenerd. He is the creator of Modernizr, and co-founder of Presentate. He lives in Vancouver, B.C. and writes and speaks about technology, social justice, design and business.

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