An operating system used to be the first thing that came to a user’s mind when asked what kind of computer he / she runs. After all, the OS defines the software end of any computing system. May it be the more consumer friendly desktops, laptops, tablets and phones or industrial machines or even tiny and cheap computing devices like the Raspberry Pi – every one of them needs an OS. However, operating systems have become a lot less sexy and have taken the backstage in recent years.
From Local to Universal
The first thing we used to do when facing any type of computer is to find out how we can give commands to the system in order to get tasks done. The process was entirely local and in many ways it remains so even now. However, some things are changing. More often than not, the very first thing you do after switching on your device is to get to the browser. This is especially true if you are mainly consuming content.
The OS has been relegated from the center stage to a supporting beam.
Where does this leave the OS to? It has been relegated from the center stage to a supporting beam. As long as an operating system is able to remain stable and provide the basic functions of launching programs quickly and allowing you to modify any needed system settings, you won’t really bother much about it.
Looking at the trajectories of both Google and Microsoft, the two software giants believe in the same thing. The future is not defined by what operating system you use but by the apps and services you spend 90% of your time on. Google is betting heavily on this future. It envisions a world where devices are connected to the internet directly or more specifically a future where everyone is connected to Google’s servers.
In a sense, this vision is not very new. After all the client and server systems in offices were setup in a similar way. The difference is that the OS now plays an even smaller role. When something becomes so small, it usually becomes flexible and more applicable. Can an OS do that?
One Size Fits All
Microsoft has come out beating its chest on a unified operating system. It proclaims that Windows on phones, tablets, laptops and desktops will soon run off the same code base. The baby steps have been taken and the company has now made significant strategic changes to embrace this philosophy. Instead of silo-ing different departments, software integration is now all rage at Redmond.
Google has taken this a little differently. It is no secret that Google runs on varying versions of Linux. There’s Android and then there’s Chrome (and Chrome can run within Android and vice versa). Google seems happy to serve a few variants of the world’s most popular open source platform but Microsoft in particular is tightening the screws.
Nonetheless, the march to unification is relentless from both companies. There is no question of the direction here.
Can It Work?
The bottom line is – can a unified operating system deliver? Is running the same version of Windows or Android/Chrome across all my devices going to provide me a great experience on each and every device I own?
This is a developer’s dream. Imagine writing just once and having your app be usable on many form factors / screens. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that some will point out glaring flaws in this approach. Windows 8 is a unified approach between touch screen devices and non touch devices. The outcry has been long and loud. Android on the other hand has the same issue with phone sized apps running sub optimally on much larger screens.
It does seem at this point that a unified approach is not a great idea for consumers. But is it?
I beg to differ. I think Google and Microsoft have got it right. Moving towards a unified operating system is the right move but one that will have growing pains. Coming from a web designer’s perspective, I see the ability to create apps that fit multiple screen somewhat similar to responsive design found in some websites.
Responsive design is a manner of partitioning the page so that it will collapse to fit smaller screens or expand to fill larger ones. This is not a simple re-size. Larger screens will say have a 3-column site while smaller screens will have just one.
A one size fit all solution that still looks good and is optimized for every screen size.
In the past there used to be a ‘desktop’ site and then a ‘mobile’ site. This is slowly going away as web designers prefer a one size fit all solution that still looks good and is optimized for every screen size. The same approach must be taken for unified operating systems. We do not need a separate desktop app and a mobile app. With the right design focus, a unified operating system can bring benefits to both developers and users.
A unified OS makes sense but can only take off if the design perspective of apps are properly realized in executed in this one size fits all approach. If done correctly, both ends of the ecosystem are satisfied and such a move will be both universally beneficial and efficient. Great apps on thin and light operating systems may soon be more than a pipe dream.
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