Open Source

What IS the relevance of an operating system?

The cloud is coming and it threatens to make the operating system irrelevant. Or at least that's what many would like you to think. Jack Wallen has a different take on the idea. Surprised?

Back when I was studying CIS in the '90s I took a class called "Operating Sytems." In that class, an operating system was defined as a mediator between user and hardware. We never discussed the concept of Windows, UNIX, Linux, Mac, etc. What we discussed was the concept of an interface vs. architecture. It was buses and bits, not Gates vs. Torvalds. That, of course, was when it looked as if there truly was only one operating system in the court of public opinion. That court didn't care what it was that drove their PCs; they only cared that it DID drive their PCs.

I firmly believe that opinion hasn't changed one bit. Not one. Oh sure there are those that have joined one camp or another, attracting the title fanboys and girls, but for the most part, people just want their computers to work. This is one of those battles that I, a staunch Linux advocate, face every day. Let me give you an example.

Recently a woman came to me for some PC help. Her computer was suffering from a couple of viruses and a TON of malware. I gave her suggestions of what to install for each problem, but first she had to get rid of McAfee (which was useless to begin with.)

She managed to get rid of McAfee and install my suggestions (AVG and StopZILLA) and it looked like everything was working like a charm. But things came crashing down around her when she had to reboot. Near the end of the boot process her machine froze. She rebooted and rebooted, but to no avail.

She finally called me and said those words I love to hear, "What is this Linux operating system? Will it work for me?" Of course I wanted to spout off my usual soap box-best, but I refrained. The first thing I asked her was what did she use her PC for? She responded with the usual list:

  • E-mail
  • Web
  • Documents

To that I said "Yes!" I had a winner. But then she remembered one other piece of the puzzle. She worked with the National Guard and once a month she had to submit a report that was signed using an application kludged out by the U.S. National Guard. It was Windows only. At first I thought I might be able to get it to work with Wine, but I quickly tossed out the idea.

Linux was a no-go with this woman. I bravely admitted defeat and realized, in this instance, the OS was, in fact, relevant. Even though she really wanted to try to switch to Linux, she couldn't because of one single application that she used once a month.

Here's another example with opposite results.

A netbook user witnessed me playing around with my daughter's Eeebuntu-based netbook and was wowed by the interface. She asked me if her netbook could be like that. I said, "Of course!" I went through my usual check list of criteria and the results were positive...a possible convert.

Being the nice guy, I suggest I would install it for her, right in front of her face. She agreed and I whipped out the USB drive containing Eeebuntu (that I carry with me all the time) and proceeded to install it over her Windows installation. After it was finished, I sat with her for a bit to make sure she could use it. She didn't ask a single question. Instead she was all smiles at how cool the new interface was on her netbook. Did she know it was Linux? No. Did she need to know it was Linux? No. All she cared about was that it was cooler than the original OS and it worked even better than it did before. In this instance, the OS was relevant even if only for the fun-factor.

What is my point? No matter how "the cloud" infiltrates our world, the operating system will remain relevant. Be it Linux, Mac, Windows, BSD, Solaris, open source, closed source...it is relevant. I hope there never will be a time when the OS is replaced by a network pipe and the only thing we see are apps opening up on a display. That, to me, takes all the fun out of computing.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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