The OS 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:
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.