Saturday, June 11, 2011

A New Round of OS Wars Signals a New Era for Personal Computing

My primary computer is rapidly approaching its fourth anniversary, and as aging computers tend to do, it developed some... personality quirks.  The network port on the motherboard has died.  A run-time exception often pops when logging off or shutting down.  Being a Windows XP machine, it needed a hard drive wipe and re-install a year ago to clean out the accumulated cruft (which I still haven't done).  Basically what I'm saying here is that within the next year and a half to two years, I'm probably going to be in the market for a new computer again.  Normally this wouldn't give me pause.  The default path for me goes like this: take a budget of 1k dollars, hit up the usual web sites to do my parts research and head over to newegg.  Some assembly required, but you get a solid "enthusiast" class Windows PC with pretty much unmatchable value for price.  But in the wake of recent announcements from both Microsoft and Apple, that choice is no longer the no-brainer it would have been even a few months ago.

For the first time in quite a while, there are interesting things afoot in the land of computer operating systems, and you can thank the so-called smart phones for it.  Say what you will about Apple, you have to admit the iPhone kicked off a real revolution.  Apple's iOS interface opened up a new world of computing to a vastly larger audience than we have seen before.  Add to that the ease of use of integrated application purchasing, throw in a dose of network storage, and you can begin to see that we are about to enter a new era of personal computing.  And the choice of OS is going to be more important than ever, because once you choose, you are going to be well and truly stuck because of the vendor lock-in all that fancy cloud-marketed convenience is designed to generate.

"We've introduced a new platform based on standard Web technologies." -Microsoft "Building Windows 8" promotional video

I'm generally platform agnostic; I can find stuff I hate about every operating system I've ever encountered.  But if the choice is as important as I think it might be, it's worth taking a look at what's coming.  So what kinds of OSes are we going to have?  Well, Google's Chrome OS comes off as an experiment in seeing if dumb terminals can make a comeback using wireless instead of wired networking and the Internet instead of a mainframe.  I think we can safely skip that one.  Its long history shows us that Linux in its legion of forms will remain both pervasive around the Internet and virtually invisible to normal consumers.  That leaves us with just the dinosaur in the room and it's scrappy, arty mammal competitor.

In lifting the curtain a bit on Windows 8, Microsoft showed they are indeed working on taking their mobile interface to the tablet space and bringing it to PCs.  They have also hinted at an integrated software store.  At the same time they set of a minor firestorm of developer ire with the promise of yet another new API for programmers to learn.  The more incremental changes in OS X Lion (and the previous Snow Leopard) have already put Apple far down the path toward an integrated user experience.  The developer community also remains much more lively on the Mac, which can also use its Unix underpinnings to leverage the vast resources of open source software far more easily than Windows.

"We're going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device." -Steve Jobs in the WWDC 2011 keynote

Apple has the momentum right now in the consumer (i.e. not the "enterprise") space.  Even in the gaming world, Apple is benefiting from the renaissance in indy titles built in Flash, HTML 5, and Java.  iOS games are massively outselling gaming console titles.  Blizzard and Valve both support Windows and Mac via their digital distribution infrastructures.  Digital distribution of software is generally driving down prices and empowering the small developer again.  While Microsoft offers the "Express" versions of its Visual Studio apps, they don't have their response to the app store up yet, and the fully functional development tools cost an arm and a leg.  Apple's XCode appears to be a capable response at a much lower entry price.

Speaking of entry prices, I can't help but mention that Apple still has a fairly significant brand tax in place.  Still, given Apple's momentum and Microsoft's clumsy responses, the choice between a custom-built Windows machine and an any-color-so-long-as-its-black Mac may not come down just to price anymore.  As a user, and as a developer, I don't think I can ignore the ecosystems building up around computers anymore.  The maturation of speedy networking and portable computing devices means that your PC isn't going to be your sole computing mechanism, but one option of many.  If those many can't interoperate smoothly, the whole system will suffer in comparison. That, in turn, means that we are moving into the next era of computing, and things are about to get a whole lot more complicated.

"Apple and Google will compete like crazy for our data because once they have it we'll be their customers forever." -Robert X. Cringely

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