Linux

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.

33 comments
jean_mbadi
jean_mbadi

We will still need an OS what ever the flavour, till we have proper high ways Internet connections with a real 50 meg or more upstream/downstream, otherwise cloud computing will be relevant for businesses but not yet for home users, then Government will have to accept it but when we know that still many countries even in Western world have limited access to the Internet, there's a lot to achieve and more to do

abduallah
abduallah

Nonsense. She did not ask you about "this Linux operating system." Cue the usual stories about everyone converting their 90 year old grandmother to Linux, and about how it's so much "easier" to use than Windows.

paradismarc
paradismarc

I don't mean to hijack the thread, but why is McAfee "useless" and why is AVG and/or STOPzilla better? Is there a quantitative comparison to point to? I ask as an unwilling user of McAfee (it came installed with my laptop) who depends on it to keep my computer malware free.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Since the ones I have aren't yet available on the cloud, and there aren't any cloud apps I'm interested in, my desktop OS is relevant to me and the cloud is not. Some people use a mix of local and provided apps, some use only local apps (like me), and some use only cloud apps. Relevance is based on your proportions. It's that simple.

sboverie
sboverie

The OS is relevant, but which OS is not relevant. Operating Systems are evolving due to better hardware, software and threats.

reggaethecat
reggaethecat

If you have a set of apps that only work on one OS (this is likely to be Windows) then the OS may be relevant. However there are alternatives, for example the user quoted in the first example could maybe have run her app on Citrix - thereby only requiring a Java client which is available on pretty much any device. The days of applications residing on the hard disks of a user's PC are numbered. People already expect to be able to access their email from any computer so why would their apps be any different?

jimbruun
jimbruun

The cost of non-net apps.

john3347
john3347

Any discussion of this nature always brings out the Windows/Linux/Mac discussion. The operating system will remain relevant, whether conspicuous and "in your face" or not! We will always need an interface between the human and machine. However, the OS would be more "appreciated" if it were less visible - ala BIOS. This, however will not happen until or unless there is a complete revamp of the "system". If, through some magic formula or something, the world got together and created a worldwide think tank and wrote a complete set of OS rules - a protocol that every piece of application software were written to conform to - then every OS were written to the application protocol rather than the reverse; we could have an OS that just runs along in the background and "does what an OS does" without the current conspicuousness of the current OSs. Then Microsoft, Apple, Giggle, Sun Microsystems, Canonical, Red Hat and anyone else could write competing programs and the same application software would work on any and all of them. Eventually, the buying public would weed these OS companies down to 2 or 3 major and a few minor ones, but the competition would improve the product. Now, I fully understand that this certainly is not going to happen in my lifetime, but this would greatly improve the product and put the focus on application software more so than OS and allow the OS to just run along in the background. Until something similar to this comes along, the OS "wars" and OS relevance will remain on the front burner.

swilsonw
swilsonw

Your absolutely right! And, since the OS always affects how the apps are written and run the choice of the OS is relevant to the user and the programmer regardless of the hard/soft platform.

billyhale
billyhale

Would we not all be happier with one OS that just works? If it is Windows I would be shocked. I know I am tired of paying extortion money for no quality due to the stranglehold on the business world.......Keep typing Jack!

parnote
parnote

Thank you, Jack, for keeping a well grounded view on the so-called "cloud" computing. You present a welcome voice of reason. When, oh when, will everyone quit trying to go backwards with centrally installed applications available only over a network? That one small, fragile link, bring productivity to a halt the second the network comes crashing down when you work with centralized apps. Having worked on a system where all the "productive" apps were located on a central server, I can't begin to count the number of times I was left sitting at my desk, thumbs twiddling, because the network was down and I couldn't access the office applications I needed to get my work done. Had the individual work stations had the office applications installed locally, I could have instead been able to remain productive, despite the network's failings (I always kept backups of my needed files on a thumb drive). Often times, these network "outages" would last for many hours, while the poor souls in IT slaved and sweated out a solution. Meanwhile, all the rest of us sat around ... waiting ... unproductive. Centralized apps (and cloud computing) made sense back when mainframes were more common-place and computing power and memory were lacking. But now that computing power and memory are readily available, it makes no sense to "warehouse" all the productive applications on a central server.

chris
chris

but people like new stuff. it's fun :-)

Head-Tech
Head-Tech

It sounds nice to hear about one common operating system that ?does it all?, but without competition where would new innovation come from. As an example take the browser war that started when Firefox developed the first improved browser in years and started gleaning a much larger market share. Not to be outdone MS finally updated IE (twice) and a new entry in the war Google developed there own browser. The OS wars are just starting as finally Linux is starting to catch up with the convenience of the MS OS and although the Mac OS is proprietary others have started developing mods that will allow it to run on non Apple hardware. As far as using dumb client hardware to run on the web. Unless security can be continuously update on that hardware the value of that hardware will only last until the first hacker cracks it or the server farm it connects to. (See the recent articles on Gmail being hacked).

chris
chris

are those people who wont even buy things from Amazon because they are afraid of identity theft. they want everything safe and sound at home.

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

The citrix client for non-windows OS's tends to lag behind in it's capability and useability. Citrix is also a huge expense from an infrastructure and licensing point of view and should not be undertaken lightly. Also look into printing issues with Citrix before going this route as Citrix has a number of issues in this area and printing from my experience is a big issue with most users. Bill

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

I am sorry to tell you this, but there are many standards out there that companies choose to implement in their own way which can make them incompatable with other vendors using the same standard. It would be nice if everything worked the way the standard specified, but human nature or competitive positioning it doesn't. Bill

Slvrknght
Slvrknght

When you mentioned a think tank like that the first thought that popped into my head was: "Gentlemen! You can't fight in here; This is the War Room!" I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to see that happening at such a gathering of minds. Admittedly, I'm not very keen on the ideas and concepts of cloud computing outside of a business environment where it can be limited to a business-internal model. There are too many technical/security issues that I would need to see resolved (no new argument here). I, for one, enjoy operating systems. They're fun to play with and experiment with. It's why I like Linux so much (Mint all the way). There's something about sitting down to a specific machine and tinkering with the hardware and software that calms me down in many ways; even when there are conflicts and issues. Then it's a puzzle I get to figure out. (Nerd, and proud of it.) Just my $.02.

robo_dev
robo_dev

how much time/effort/agony we spend on local PCs and coddling/slaving over the local OS? There's a reason we have fax machines. Back in the late 1980s, fax modems were all the rage...everybody predicted the demise of the fax machine. But soon those same folks scrapped the fax modem and just bought a fax machine. It's all about usability, interface, reliability, and simplicity. For many folks a simple 'dumb terminal' connected to a cloud computing model is all they need...something as simple as a fax machine or a TV to operate. To send a fax with a fax machine: insert document, dial number, press start. There is an OS in your fax machine, you just don't see it. It's probably an embedded UNIX of some sort, or maybe Linux. To send a fax with a PC, you need to find the app, navigate through at least a half dozen other screens, and hopefully the app does not crash and the PC can find the fax modem. Then if all goes well, you power up your scanner, fiddle with the resolution settings, maybe do a document preview, hit scan and maybe, if you're lucky, you can send your fax. The whole concept of 'cloud computing' is to make the PC more like the TV or FAX machine. My TV has an OS, hidden somewhere inside, and so does my TiVO. Imagine having a PC appliance as bone-head simple as a TV or a TiVO to setup and use. Is this good for the power users? No. But for the masses who need simple apps, cloud computing is the perfect solution.

hillman.d
hillman.d

In my mind the OS is like any other tool that people use to realize an idea. To one person the OS might be a means to bring their idea to life and to another person the OS will be the end itself. Everybody else falls somewhere in the middle. I think the only thing that is important is to remember that it is just a tool that people will use to operate the machine. The better the tool is able to conform to the user's expectations of how such a tool should perform, the easier it'll be for the average user to get things done. The OS that is able to satisfy the widest range of users without becoming a bloated pig and without falling apart stands a good chance of becoming popular. I personally like OS X because it satisfies the users that just want the thing to work when they are working and it also satisfies the UN*X geeks that love to tinker with source code and script files. Apple did well to wrap the OS around the machine, all the while making it possible to plug in needed functionality. Now, if only they'd let me wrap it around my own machine.

bsit
bsit

Interesting reading all these replies. At least some have sense to see the true relevance. Basically the OS runs the hardware along with the BIOS so apps can run. MS has lost sight of that and created an OS that tries to be one big complex inefficient app in itself, causing all sorts of headaches. MS?s biggest problem is wanting to make big fast bucks and flashy useless looks for something that should just sit out of the way doing its job. After decades in Electronic Engineering you get to know what a real OS is about. DOS was basically there as is Unix and its variants. Windows is a great idea but goes too far and looses sight of its main function, gets bloated, unstable and is easily attacked. We have it because of marketing, not because of good work. As some one pointed out the Cloud has to run on an OS. It is an OS in a sense too. Your home and business gadgets run on OSs, they are just not in your face like Windows is. An OS is a worker, a labourer, at the coal face. MS has made it into a show pony Yuppie CEO OS with Bells and Whistles that only just work. Way too complicated for what it is meant to be, which is a foundation for apps, not an app in itself! With the MS produced OSs it is no wonder everyone wants to get away from it proclaiming ?Who needs an OS anyway?? I'm afraid without an OS nothing is going to work unless each app has its own embedded OS. That is not going to happen.

reggaethecat
reggaethecat

We have already been through the 'distributed computing' era, we are now back with the client-server paradigm. If you design the network and server infrastructure to have resilience and redundancy you never need suffer an outage, and what's more you will save money in only supporting the software in one place rather than many.

chris
chris

the idea is that MS XP/Vista/etc is not competing with Mac Leopard/etc, but each could develop apps. Use MS Office Cloud edition. Of course, right now, MS will make sure that it is an IE app, not a web app. maybe one day...

reggaethecat
reggaethecat

My point is, did that user ACTUALLY need Windows on her laptop to run her app? She could use Terminal Services, WINE, a VM, Citrix or possibly other methods to run her application. And anyway my guess would be that within 5 years the application will be web-enabled and it wouldn't matter one jot what OS she uses, or where she is where she runs the application.

Wizard-09
Wizard-09

Have to differ on this one, given the right thought and planing of citrix it can be a great tool, having supported 25 citrix servers i would say it was great for what we needed it for, printers was not an issue for us, had it running on windows desktop, and unix booting to network it worked great.

john3347
john3347

In the un-realistic, idealistic world that I speak of in my opinion expressed above, there would always be Mavericks and always be a place for Mavericks. The main point that I was trying to convey was that if the OS were written to the application protocol, rather than the application written to the OS protocol, it would allow the OS to be stealthily running "behind the scenes" and would essentially become invisible.

chris
chris

we'd have that. Somebody is telling (selling) people that they need MS winders on their machines. I'd bet DELL couldn't sell an appliance computer that was for surfing, email and viewing photos/videos even though most folks probably stop there.

lodestone
lodestone

. . .what runs the 'Cloud'? Hmm? An OS, usually Linux. Nuf said! --Allen

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

Have you read any TV reviews lately? They often discuss the easy/difficulty of navigating the menu system. What is that menu system? It's the UI into the OS. You may not call it that, but here is a perfect example of people rating a TV on it's OS, which in my opinion does matter. Why else would a company rate it? Bill

pyang
pyang

Centralized computing in a client/server model is definitely a cost saver for businesses. However, the concept that cloud computing is going to take over is just a media hype. You can't get to the cloud without and OS. You still need that layer that allows users to interact with hardware.

chris
chris

I can't even imagine giving my stuff over to the cloud. right now it's usability; has anyone really tried to use google docs? It's like running a 286 with a 28.8 modem. while I like the everywhere present piece, it's just a repository, not for any real productivity. That "may" change over time, but then you are leaving your secrets "out there". Anyone want that? Really? What I want is the everywhere present ability to access "my network" (home or office); Logmein kind of setup should work.

chris
chris

but don't you have to buy TS licenses to go along with your Citrix ones?

chris
chris

people might lose their addiction :-/

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