Every couple years I take stock of the latest developments in computer operating systems. It helps me get an overview of innovations in computer technology and get up-to-speed in terms of what the “world” considers important for computers. Here are my impressions.
Apple and Google have done a lot to change the way we (the world) view computers and their roles in our lives. Apple’s operating system Mac OS X is elegant in simplicity and power. As a newbie I was able to get it up and running quickly (on an iMac) and within days felt right at home with advanced tasks available on Unix-like systems. From concepts like disk partitioning and file synchronization to simple tasks like chatting on Skype and syncing contacts, the whole system is designed to simplify life. Google has done the same with e-mail, pictures, searches, maps and many other areas, all in an effort to simplify life. In case of Google, the services are “free” but the motives are unclear (outside the obvious ad business). Apple does not suffer from this but has a high premium for its products (which warrant every penny when compared with the competition, IMHO). One could argue that while these companies have simplified our life in some ways, they have indirectly increased the demands placed on our time but this is for a separate discussion (some hints in Technological Revolution).
Microsoft changed our lives in the last couple decades. Windows Vista was a total disappointment. Windows 7 is much better and is probably the best Windows yet. Amazingly, most people I know (including myself) still use Windows XP. Many programs I use have a hard time running on 64-bit Windows 7. It consumes a lot of memory (for what?) and still has quite a few areas to improve. The simplicity of Windows 2003 was more acceptable but that was a server operating system (with a high price tag). Why Microsoft is all over the place is hard to understand but the results will eventually show it.
Linux has come a long way. I tried Ubuntu 9.10 and 10.04, Fedora 12 and 13, Debian 5.04, Oracle Enterprise Linux 5, and a few others. Of these I like the install of Fedora 13 and the usability of Ubuntu 9.10. Apple’s OS X is a far more polished Unix variant than all of these. What’s amazing about the Linux world is the global community’s efforts to enhance it and the corporate efforts to milk it, all with good intentions. It will be a while before these become mainstream enough to displace Microsoft and Apple. A simple task of getting Skype to work took quite a bit of research and modification of runtime parameters, for example. Apple knows this and requires its Unix variant OS X to run on its hardware. Try to run OS X on anything else and Linux will look like piece of cake.
A few other operating systems support their stated goals well but since most of us do not interact with them directly we often do not even know that they exist. Solaris, for example, is solid but is made for business servers. RedHat and Suse have their versions of enterprise Linux servers. There are the BSDs, and many others. While these may run systems that help change our lives, they do not directly change our perceptions about computers and their roles.
A lot has changed from a decade ago but the players seem to be the same. The question is whether a new player will emerge in this space to completely change the game. What disruptive innovation will completely displace all of these operating systems in the same way that these have displaced the prior generations (CP/M, DOS, VMS, so many more)? Will the inventions be in hardware land or incremental improvements on what we have today? Pages could be written on this topic, but let me stop here for now.