Sunday, March 09, 2008

Turn to the internet

I do think we are seeing the downfall of the operating system as we know it.

Its replacement? The internet, of course, with Google Docs being the obvious example of the kinds of applications which begin to make more sense online. Suddenly, any computer with a web browser offers the same access to and experience with my data, regardless of operating system. And it falls neatly in line with the fact that over the next ten years I will go through many iterations of hardware, and multiple operating systems, but my gmail account will most likely remain a constant. Generally, I want as much of my data (at least non-sensitive data) as possible tied to the most durable thing.

Once we reach the point where we can stream full-resolution video, nearly any application could theoretically be handled over the net. I wish I could find the article I was reading about taking video games in that direction. Video games, because of their high demands on processing, memory, graphics, and interaction, are easily the most rigorous standard for this model of computing. And they have a lot to gain from it. Taking user-purchased game consoles or pc hardware upgrades out of the equation would revolutionize that industry. The entry price would be much much lower, theoretically attracting a much larger audience. (With ad-based revenue, there may simply be no entry price.) And the experience could be much better, with hardware maintained and upgraded by the game publisher far outstripping the capabilities of mass-produced machines. Again, all you would need to access it is some sort of web browser. Most likely, this would come in the form of a box by your tv with controllers attached to it. The main problem here is that pesky speed of light, which absolutely limits the kind of response time you can get between your input and the result on the screen, based on distance to the server. But for games that do not require twitch reactions (alas, my favorite kind), it is in many ways an ideal platform.

So in this new world the operating system hopefully changes significantly, because it's got a lot less work to do. It's definitely well on its way. The purest example of this idea to date is gOS, which integrates Google's web applications into a stripped-down Linux build. A version of it is included with the $400 Cloudbook being sold at Walmart. It's got a long way to go, mainly because web-based applications have a long way to go. But I love the approach, which is to start with the bare minimum, and add things only as you need them.

It will be important for all of these web applications to automatically back up my data to my own hard drive or server, so I always have my own copy. In fact, I can think of a lot of great things about having one storage device in my house with which all of my devices interact via the internet or a local network. My camera, for instance, should be sending my pictures back to my computer (or to my online image editor, which then backs them up to my computer) as soon as it can find an internet connection, so I never run out of space on the card.


Jason said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure we're so close yet. Isn't another big obstacle the lack of consistently great (fast and reliable) internet connections in the average American household? What about more general access, especially wifi? Sometimes I like to do work on my laptop even when I'm in some cavern without internet access. Before all my applications migrate to some remote server we'll need to massively expand (free) connectivity.

Also, isn't "a box by your tv with controllers attached to it" already what we're being sold by the game console companies?

Feed said...

Yes, indeed. The point is to have a box which is familiar to the user, but costs $20 or $30, instead of the $500 you pay now for a high end console, or $2500+ for a gaming pc.

I definitely agree we're not there yet. (One reason being, as I mentioned, that there are just not that many applications yet.) But it's where we're headed. The operating system, which used to be in the role of an enabler, has become more of a barrier -- you have the hardware needed to run an application, but your operating system won't support that application. The breaking down of such barriers is, in my opinion, inevitable.

One strong example is the fact that I am now using a Macbook, the hardware I like best, with Windows XP, the operating system I like best. And I like XP only because it allows me to use the applications I like best.

I do agree with you though that there need to be offline capabilities. So let's be a little more specific and say we're talking about the browser as the new operating system, rather than the internet. The same application can be housed locally (presuming the hardware supports it) or over the internet, but is accessed through the browser either way.

Feed said...

And, just to be clear, we're not talking about the demise of the OS altogether. Rather a diminished role focused on allowing the hardware to interact with the browser, which in turn interacts with the applications. This, of course, has already happened in many areas. And the reason it works is because we have standards to which all browsers, regardless of OS, adhere, and so all can access the same content.

Kaahl said...

You forgot about the backhoe theorem. Simply put, there are idiots everywhere that screw things up. The more idiots are networked together, the more likely they will screw you up.

Exhibit A: twice in the last year my blackberry has been out for a few hours or a full day because someone didn't fully test a routine software upgrade.

Exhibit B: Joe from the shirtless Dr. Pepper commercials digs up a communication cable and shuts down the productivity of 20 city blocks.

Finally, horseless carriages will never catch on.