Forget Everything Else: Which OS Can Keep Pace?

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"The future isn't what it used to be."

-- Yogi Berra

Twitter, of all things, got me thinking about about the pace of technology and what the implications are for the OS of choice. It all started when I was reading an analysis of how Microsoft has tried to force graphics compositing down the throats of IT managers who just didn't need it. Conflicted OSes don't keep pace well with software technology.

Fundamentally, Windows Vista and Windows 7 are conflicted OSes. Microsoft has been building a business OS for years, and IT managers pretty much know what they want in an enterprise OS. It's pretty boring stuff.

And yet, for a company like Microsoft who claims that Apple's market share is not a threat, they seem to pay a lot of attention to trying to make Windows 7 have a lot of sex appeal. That's all in spite of their current TV advertising campaign that claims Macs are just too cool for the average consumer.

Microsoft knows that a significant percentage of their customers are home users, tied to Windows, because that's what those people use at work. So its logical to make Windows look cool, at least to create the perception that Windows is just as good as Mac OS X.

Conflict

So far, this is stuff we know. Daniel Dilger summed it up nicely in his recent essay: "Why Windows 7 is Microsoft’s next Zune." In this case, I need you to go read that article before continuing here. I'll wait....

Back? Excellent. Mr. Dilger does a great job of explaining how Windows 7 is a conflicted OS. It needs to run business apps, can't break away from its shackles, and so it adds a layer of glitz. Unfortunately, the glitz requires some horsepower, the kind that's not found in netbooks.

What an amazing corner Microsoft has backed itself into. Apple's trap, the banner signs at WWDC a few years ago "Redmond: start your photocopiers" was bait. Of course Microsoft engineers could implement a lot of the cool visual features based on graphics compositing that Apple had pioneered.

But should they?

Pace

Hardware technology moves at a pace bound by our understanding of solid-state electronics and economics. While I can't complain about the recent Nehalem-based Mac Pros, about the same speed as a Cray from 1993 (45 gigaflops), we haven't exactly seen an explosion in speeds. The quad core Mac Pro is about 5 to 6 times faster than my Power Mac G5. That computer is about 4 to 5 times faster than my old Blue & White Power Mac G3. It took from 1999 to 2009 to get that overall system speed up of 20 to 30.

Software, on the other hand, can be conjured up rather quickly. While great user apps like iPhoto and iWeb take years to refine, Web services and APIs like Twitter can be put together rather quickly. Twitter is only two years old, and it's taking the world by storm. More importantly, the pace of Twitter development is high. We would surely hardly recognize Twitter clients if we could glimpse them from the summer of 2010.

What I'm saying is that an OS must be built with a coherent vision to move forward with technology quickly. Of course, that's not to say that there aren't some nice Twitter clients on XP and Vista. Rather, the point is that as technology explodes, we need more and more elegance and utility in our OS, not the make work approach of Windows that keeps IT managers employed.

As a result, the lack of facility for gracefully handling a boatload of communication in the OS ends up turning the user against the technology itself. The other day, one of our editors mentioned that he felt slightly overloaded, having inputs coming at him from iChat, Twitter, e-mail and SMS at almost the same time. And yet, he's a very capable Mac user, and I know he was indeed handling them all -- adding some humorous exaggeration.

Withdrawal

At the cusp of the information revolution, with newspapers dying and struggling to go digital, electronic books taking off, the Apple Media Tablet possibly imminent, TV delivery mechanisms exploding, terabyte drives needing backups, and all kinds of communications inundating us, we need elegance. We need the best we can get. Everyday, conflicted, average to poor OSes can't provide the platform, the APIs, the SDKs, and the frameworks required to pull everything together that we're going to need in the next decade.

What concerns me is that as the baby boomers start to retire, especially those that didn't use computers much for a living, they're going to depend on the Internet even more for information, services, and entertainment. Windows 7, which can't run on the netbooks they might afford, is a daunting OS to get the job done -- and keep personal data protected. (Though, I admit, Microsoft appears to be doing a good job shoring up its OS security.)

In principle, watching TV or cooking isn't hard. But when it comes to the essentials of moving into the life of the Netizen, there are hurdles that give people pause. Our Nancy Gravely, who is an expert helping beginners, said in a recent MacVoices interview that the bar is considerably raised these days for newbies. There is so much to know about protecting wireless routers, backups, Web security, file and photo management, hardware compatibility, cable protocols, and synchronization that many newcomers to full time computer use throw up their hands in despair. Help!

Is it any wonder that the pace of software development and communications causes people to withdraw? Recently, I watched a pretty good movie, "Appaloosa" with Ed Harris. There's a scene in which he's just siting on the porch of the Marshall's office, staring into the distance. That was his job. Sit, munch on a toothpick, stare.

Not any more.

The Fuuuutchaaa

For the rest of us in the coming years, we will be bathed in a sea of electromagnetic radiation. We're in constant contact. We use the Internet to file our taxes, watch Hulu, read the news, and chat with friends. That Internet life is moving quickly, and an OS that has too many concessions, too many compromises, too many conceits and bluffs, and one that basically caters to businesses that want to spend the least amount of money possible doesn't have the elegance, grace, power, infrastructure, and growth potential required for the new Internet life.

Which, as Mr. Dilger said in the essay cited above, for Microsoft to point out that Macs are too cool for its customers is just moronic and evidence of its conflicted approach.

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