Are operating systems a dying breed?

October 15, 2009: 11:00 AM ET

As the launch of Windows 7 approaches, one executive ponders the relevance of the OS.

By Richard Muirhead, chairman and CEO, Tideway Systems

Muirhead argues that operating systems are evolving. Photo: Tideway

Muirhead argues that operating systems are evolving. Photo: Tideway

The perception is that operating systems are dying. In truth, they are evolving.

For years we've witnessed wars waged among major operating system vendors, with computer purchases hanging in the balance. Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows was a household name for people who didn't know what an operating system was, its popularity growing from the use of well-known, everyday applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint that other operating systems didn't have.

Increasingly, that war is now over and irrelevant.  Users can access similar applications more cheaply, simply and wherever they are directly via their Web browser – whether it's Google's (GOOG) Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox, Microsoft's Internet Explorer or something else – leaving them little reason to care what operating system is supporting them.

Today's winning sales pitch to the end is all about usability, flexibility and a complete solution.

So are operating systems dead? Not really.

Despite becoming nearly invisible to the end-user, the truth is that operating systems continue to evolve and specialize behind the scenes.

Operating system proliferation, commoditization - or both?

In fact, there are more opportunities than ever for their use.  Mobile devices like smartphones, netbooks and e-readers are becoming ubiquitous, and consumer driven activities like Web 2.0 are forcing their way into the enterprise on the back of virtualization and cloud computing.

All of these technologies rely on operating systems to run and are driving their proliferation. The big difference today is that the choice of operating system is increasingly less and less important as end users continue to demand more integrated, complete solutions.

Google is one company that has recognized this trend and evolved its business model accordingly.  The company offers numerous applications from Gmail to Google Docs and the Chrome browser.  Earlier this year, Google launched a new operating system, also called Chrome, as the company's "attempt to re-think what operating systems should be."

The official announcement illustrates why operating systems need to be integrated and specialized; "the operating systems that browsers run on were designed in an era where there was no Web."  With the Chrome operating system supporting the Chrome browser, Google not only performs more efficiently, it's delivering a more interwoven, complete solution.

Through the operating system's quiet proliferation and marginalization within integrated solutions, it has become a commodity.  Look no further than the virtualization space.  Virtualization creates virtual solutions from physical solutions – the best-known example is in data centers, where virtualization software can allow a single server to do the work of many.

Suppliers of virtual solutions simply deploy their offerings using whatever operating system the vendor thinks supports the product best.  This removes the choice from the customer almost 100% of the time.

Invisible to the customer

My company, Tideway, a software developer that helps companies optimize their complex IT systems, is a good example of this transition.  We began by shipping a fully-integrated and tested physical machine, incorporating web server, app server, operating system, training videos, etc., serviced by our monthly updates.  For the past year now, customers can also get our solution in a virtual form.

Probably the largest effect of the operating system's evolution – both on businesses and consumers alike – is the endless possibilities for innovation.  Web 2.0 has allowed end users to be more efficient and productive at decreased costs, with purchasing decisions based more and more on the packaged solution and end benefits.  Sean Michael Kerner from Internetnews put it nicely saying, "Linux isn't as much about the operating system (though that's important) it's about all the things that Linux enables."

It's no surprise that we're seeing this shift to highly-usable, integrated technology solutions - be it in mobile apps or enterprise software - that can scale efficiently and that can truly flex to accommodate innovation in a particular market.  The operating system as we knew it is no more, but rather a proliferating and commoditizing technology that's increasingly becoming integrated and specialized like Google Chrome.

And this is just the beginning…not the end.

Muirhead is chairman of Tidway Systems, a New York and London-based company that specializes in helping customers optimize their data centers and other complex information technology systems.

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