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The OS Wars

Operating System Wars

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of its author.

When it comes to starting a business, buying computers used to be the simple part. All you had to ask yourself was, Mac or PC? Within the last decade, it got even simpler. Macs and PCs were no longer mutually exclusive, and to this day, you’d be hard pressed to find any sizable business that utilizes only one or the other. But in the world of Tech, nothing stays simple for long.

Now, business owners are practically agonizing over the sort of tech their organizations employ. Computers: Desktops or laptops? Mac Book Pro or Mac Book Air? Windows XP, or Windows 7? Smartphones: iPhones or Android phones? Windows Phone 7 or Blackberry? And then, there’s the latest quandary:

To Tablet or not to Tablet?

I’ve been putting off this piece–originally called “The Tablet Wars”– for a long time. Every day, there’s a new development or rumor in the world of tablets. CES brought on a whole new slew of questions about the future of tablets. But as time has gone on, one thing has solidified in my mind. It’s not about the device. It’s not about your phone, it’s not about your laptop, and it’s not about your tablet. It’s about your operating system.

For the uninitiated, an operating system is that thing you see when you flip on your computer or smart phone. Applications and apps are written specifically for an operating system, and can’t be run on another operating system (or OS), as the coding language for each is different. If you’re feeling extra geeky, here’s a history of computer operating systems. If you’re not feeling particularly geeky, well, just try and stick with me through the next few paragraphs.

Computers and laptops run “traditional operating systems.” Windows is the biggest traditional OS. It runs on PCs made by almost any manufacturer, from Dell and HP to the computer your old roommate was building while you were going out to bars. Apple computers, on the other hand, only run the Mac OS, and the Mac OS can only run on Apple computers.

Smartphones run what’s called a Mobile OS. These are simpler operating systems, usually built for touch screens, that run “apps,” the handicapped cousins of computer applications.  Apple iPhone’s and iPads run iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system, the main competitor of which is Google’s Android. Blackberry and Microsoft also have their own mobile operating systems, and there are new ones cropping up every month.

Then you have your Cloud OS, or Web OS (not to be confused with HP/Palm’s “webOS,” which is actually a mobile OS). A Cloud-OS is an operating system which does almost nothing but connect to the internet, through which it connects to “web apps,” similar to smartphone apps with one big exception: they don’t actually exist on your machine, they exist on the internet. Cloud Operating Systems aren’t really in full-force yet. Google’s working away on its Chrome OS, but it’s not available to the general public.

If you’re confused, you should be. There are too many options, and the ones you choose will determine a lot of things. And, as the lines between the types of operating systems continue to blur, the way we compute–and the way we do business–is going to be radically changed forever. Let the war begin.

Here are the contenders:

  • Traditional Operating Systems (Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s Mac OS, Linux)
  • Mobile Operating Systems (Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS, etc.)
  • Cloud-Based Operating Systems (Google’s Chrome OS)

And here’s the battlefield, the three things the operating systems will be judged on:

  • Capability
  • Availability
  • Compatibility

Let’s get to it.

First: Capability. This is the biggest issue. It isn’t really about Apple’s iOS versus Google’s Android OS. It’s more iOS versus Mac OS, Windows Phone 7 versus Windows 7. Android Versus Chrome, and Chrome versus Windows. An operating system is only as good as the programs it can run, and right now, the sort of programs phones and tablets can run pale in comparison to programs that can be run on desktops and laptops.

You would never try to edit a movie on a tablet. Not yet, anyway. Part of that is hardware. The tablets aren’t quite fast enough to power those kind of intensive operations. And yet, wouldn’t editing a movie, or creating a PowerPoint presentation, be a totally different experience if you could only touch it?

I’ve used audio editors on my Android phone– they’re alright for recording memos and little more– and I’ve played around a little bit with Aviary, a free audio editor from Google’s Chrome Webstore. While Aviary is surprisingly complex and capable, I wouldn’t dare edit a Why Didn’t I Think of That? story on it yet, and I’ve yet to see a web app–or a mobile app–that can match the functionality of any Adobe Creative Suite program.

So right now, traditional OS’s win this round. For a mobile OS to even come close, our portable devices will need to get a helluva lot beefier, and the way apps are designed and sold will need to be radically revolutionized. As for Cloud OS’s–of which Google’s forthcoming Chrome OS is the only real contender at this point–well, I’m not sure what they can do yet. There’s really no infrastructure in place yet for any kind of robust functionality in the cloud. In fact, we’re just going to stop talking about Cloud Operating Systems for a while.

Second: Availability. The fact that there are way more machines powering traditional operating systems doesn’t really factor into this argument. It’s more a matter of: how easy is it to get this operating system and these applications? If you want an application available to iPhone and iPad users, then you better have an iPhone or an iPad, because it’s 100% impossible to (legally) run any Apple software or OS on a non-Apple machine. Microsoft Windows, on the other hand, allows you to install the OS on any piece-meal junk-machine that you can get to turn on. Similarly, Android has virtually no qualifications for installing its operating system (which is one of the reasons machines like Samsung’s sub-par Galaxy Tab are in danger of poisoning the low-end tablet marketplace).

Also, you can buy programs for Windows or Android from anywhere. If you’re looking for an iPhone app, you’re buying it through Apple, and they’re taking a cut. Which is great, if Apple will allow your product in their App store. But, as they’ve demonstrated time and again, the apps they choose to sell are done at their sole discretion.

That being said, Android apps aren’t up to snuff yet. Sure, Google’s free Maps and Navigation Android apps surpass any free app you’ll find from Apple. But on the whole, the stuff available for Apple’s mobile products is better. In quantity and, often, in quality. Regardless, the traditional OS–Windows in particular–wins this round, practically without trying.

Third: Compatibility. Go ahead, ask Apple. Compatibility is important. For the longest time, almost anything that came out of an Apple machine couldn’t go anywhere other than another Apple machine. Documents, applications, you name it. If you owned an Apple computer, you lived in a little bubble. That’s mostly changed now. You can send pictures and documents and movies without worrying if the recipient has a Mac or a PC. In that sense, it’s become almost a non-issue. But what about sharing documents on mobile phones or tablets?

The process is clunky, at best. Have you ever tried to navigate files in your phone? When I plug in my Android to my computer, I just have to know that my pictures are located in a folder called “Camera” that’s inside another folder called “DCIM.” I have to know that there’s not actually anything in the folder called “Data,” and that videos I record don’t actually go in the folder called “Videos.” It’s a nightmare. That’s because these things were designed to be self-contained. Phone makers would prefer if you didn’t try to sort through your phone’s file structure at all. And like it or not, phones weren’t designed to edit and share documents. It’s getting better. But it isn’t there yet.

It looks like the Cloud OS, the Dark Horse, takes the round. All you need is an internet connection, and it’s all there. Have a document uploaded to Microsoft Live or Google Docs? Access it anywhere there’s an internet connection. A Mac, a PC, a tablet, a smart phone. Sharing a file? Just send a link. How can an operating system that barely exists win a category generally ruled by the dominating manufacturer? That’s the beauty of it. Cloud operating systems are a somewhat new idea, but they’re built on the one thing that rules our computing lives, and follows us everywhere we go: the internet.

So who wins, really? Are the majority of our computing devices going to turn into glorified phones, running flimsy little apps? Will mobile apps become more robust? Or will applications that used to come on a set of DVD’s suddenly be available over the internet, no download or disk required? Unfortunately, I really don’t know. Where we stand is here: The most sensible OS would be a Cloud OS. The most convienent OS right now is a mobile OS. But the best is still the desktop OS.

As I said earlier, there are too many options out there. And the only option that can actually do anything, the only machines that actually have any real firepower behind them, are still the computers and laptops that bloggers and tech columnists everywhere call a “dying breed.” But I think I said it best in my last post about CES tablets: until tablets and phones become full-computing machines–real computers–they’ll just be luxury items, relegated to the world of Cool-Techno-Toys. And toys are fun. But business is business. And until further notice, it’s done on the computer.

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  • http://praxis22.livejournal,com praxis22

    Make that:

    Traditional Operating Systems (Microsoft’s Windows, UNIX)
    Mobile Operating Systems (UNIX, etc.)
    Cloud-Based Operating Systems (UNIX)

    Linux & UNIX were attempts at implementing Multics, they are broadly compatible, in that you can take the source for a Linux program and compile it on Solaris, OSX, etc.

    I was having this argument just recently with a colleague, He uses an iPhone, I use Android. He couldn’t understand why people would choose anything other than the iPhone as “it just works” Which I’ll grant it does. I even went so far as to say that for the bulk of people the iPhone is a better device, since Apple does spend so much time creating an integrated experience and the walled garden approach provides some semblance of security.

    That said however, for people like myself and most of my colleagues, who do know what an OS is, Android is the only choice, both because of the Wild West approach of the app market and the prevalence of mods, etc. That, and the core understanding that what you have in your hand is not a phone but a computer. My Android runs antivirus for instance. At it’s core is “the freedom to tinker” which is lost on most people, granted, but is core functionality to people like me.

    Soon we will be an Android only office, The guy who loved Blackberry jumped to a HTC Desire Z (wanted a keyboard) and the girl who has a first gen iPhone (dual boot IOS/Android) is looking to go Android too. We do have somebody with an old Nokia Communicator running Linux, but he’s sticking for the moment I suspect.

    I have other ideas as to why Android is steam rolling everything in it’s path, (at least in Europe) but that will have to wait as I have to get dressed and go to work now :)

  • http://praxis22.livejournal.com praxis22

    Once more unto the breech :)

    I think the difference between the US & Europe is rooted in “market failure” this can be seen most clearly in the patchwork of mostly incompatible networks in the USA. The Europeans saw this and came up with Global System for Mobile (GSM) and also boosted the network effect by having people pay to make calls, rather than receive them.

    This had effects of scale & reach, I’ve stood in the Sahara in sight of 7 or 8 pyramids and phoned my mother in the UK to tell her about it. This was with an Ericsson phone before they merged with Sony. Due to carrier subsidy, and the zero cost to take a call, it lead to widespread adoption, and curiously enough to a fact that a carriers hate as much as they rely on. The handset became a fashion accessory.

    I remember sitting in a conference hall at a crypto conference years ago, and hearing carrier reps bitch about the need to keep recycling the phones and coming up with something new every six months because of the fickle and demanding consumer. They were fairly adamant that a phone was an enabling commodity product and not a fashion item. Consumers however wanted new toys, and having pandered to consumer expectations they were now slave to them. This turn of events did however spur R&D and rapid product development.

    Nokia was top dog and doing well until they and everyone else were blown away by the iPhone. It was clearly a superior toy with a price tag to match, but in Europe it was a problem, it was only one product and available from one provider initially, when it widened out to more than one carrier, you had a problem of how did you differentiate yourself when everyone else had it too. How do you fill a shop with just one product?

    Thence came Google, who with Android free to all comers, nuked Microsoft who expected handset makers to pay for Windows Mobile, and blew holes in the balance sheet of Nokia and others who’d paid for Satellite mapping companies; hoping to charge for GPS tracking services. Only to have Google give away turn by turn data for free.

    The initial releases of Android were a little shaky, and they were released on no-name brands like HTC, but once it was in the public eye, the carriers and handset makers seized on it as a cheap iPhone killer and set about churning out cheap alternatives. IMO this had two effects, it allowed shops to fill their shelves with new products, and gave carriers a way to differentiate, and it allowed them to diversify away from Nokia & Apple.

    The real deal in my mind however is the methodology behind Google & Apple, what I call “process not product” though you could equally call it product not platform. Apple are very much into the product cycle, they bring out a single beautiful product every year that is heavily integrated and seamless in operation, a child could use it. Desire drives your target demographic and sales. Yet this is not without issues, since it’s a single product once a year. After 6-8 months people know the new one will be out soon, etc. and everyone has the same product.

    Google are not developing a product in any real sense, they work with a handset provider every 18 months or so to build a reference platform, but for the most part anyone can build an Android phone, you don’t even need to clear it with Google if you can live without access to the market, etc. What they are developing is a platform, incrementally and at speed. Having bought a phone running Android 2.1, I waited 6 months and skipped a version, went through 2.2 directly to 2.3.2 In effect I have a brand new phone. It’s faster, less encumbered, and has more features than before.

    It is this process based philosophy that has bred a profusion of devices from multiple manufacturers, established and new entrants alike. It means people like me can pick a platform, then pick the best hardware to run it on, the only real limiting factor is cost & battery life.

    This also plays to the carrier & shop strategy of continuous new product, to draw in new subscribers and retain old ones. It fills a shop out nicely.

    I know very little of the US market, save for the high end phones from Motorola & Samsung, so I have no idea what the low-end looks like. In the UK and across Europe meanwhile, we have things like this: http://orangesanfrancisco.co.uk/ a sub £100 (€110, $155) smartphone, made by ZTE, that will run Android 2.2 on a large 3.5″ capacitive screen, with GPS, 3G & wifi & camera.

    Mostly I think, the steam roller is due to habit, and people upgrading because they can, the market is moving so fast that the iPhone, a thing of beauty for those that can afford it, is being left behind by the noisy hustle of competition for shelf space. You don’t need to put an iPhone on display when an advert in the window will do for those that will ask for it by name.

    Nokia it seems to me will always have a place for those that just want a phone, without the bells and whistles, but if the Nokia/Microsoft pact isn’t going to bear fruit until 2012, imagine where Apple, and more importantly the Android platform will be by then. If the last six months of frenetic tablet activity is anything to go by the competition is going to get even more fierce. It seems to me that Apple’s only hope is that it’s up front investment in screens pays off and that those of it’s competitors are affected by the slow down in Japan due to the quake and tsunami. Given the profusion of devices out there and going forward a single product is going to lost in the stream, it’s base will follow it, but unless Apple lowers it price, while they own the high-end, I don’t see how they compete for volume, and building out a platform.

    Anyway, enough pixels for one day :)

  • http://www.thinkofthat.net/blog benjaminchristopher

    @Praxis- Thank you so much for your in-depth comments. I was reading them, and almost forgot I was on my own blog. It’s great to get an idea of what the market–and perception–is like in Europe. As you probably know, the iPhone was available on only one US carrier until THIS YEAR, which is an incredibly long time for a product like that to be tied to a single provider.

    As a consumer, I haven’t noticed any substantial change since the iPhone was made available on a second carrier. Sure, a few more iPhones cropped up amongst my circle of friends. But people who didn’t use AT&T haven’t exactly being “deprived.” Android swooped in and provided consumers with a great platform comparable to iOS, and in some ways, superior.

    The iPhone’s predecessors will never be as groundbreaking as the original. It was a quantum leap, and–at the time–no one could compare with it. You were either on AT&T or you didn’t have a true smartphone. That time soon passed, and those who refused to switch carriers were shortly rewarded. I don’t know the specifics of Apple’s deal with AT&T, but, while I’m sure it made them a lot of money, it prevented them from building their customer base even bigger than its become.

    Thanks again for your great comments. I see you have a Livejournal. I’ll have to stop by one of these days!

    -Benjamin Christopher

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