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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Friday, December 05, 2008

The decline of the personal-computer operating system

The personal-computer operating system as we know it, typically Windows or Mac OS, was needed back when people installed lots of applications onto their computers. To get the apps you wanted, it was necessary to use a popular OS. Things have changed. Most people use only a few apps, all of which were pre-installed on the computer when they bought it: a browser, an email program, an instant-messaging program, a media player, and perhaps an office suite, and the browser is the main one. Obtaining new functionality is certainly common, but it’s now mostly received from web-based applications that are accessed from the already-installed browser. For most users, installing apps is a rare thing, and furthermore it’s a dangerous thing because it can cause all kinds of trouble; they’re best off sticking with the key apps, and letting those apps update themselves. People are learning this.

In the past, most people insisted on getting Windows because most installable apps only worked on Windows. Now the need for apps beyond a core set is largely gone. The result has been an increasing market share for Mac OS. Not so long ago I would have hesitated to use a Mac because of the app problem, but earlier this year when given the choice of Windows or Mac OS at work it was a no-brainer for me to choose the largely superior Mac OS. (Well, except for one thing. Choosing Windows would have gotten me a ThinkPad, complete with the pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard. We touch-typists can, once used to a pointing stick, use it way faster than we can a trackpad, and a ThinkPad is what I use at home. A true no-brainer would have been a Mac with a pointing stick.)

In the longer term, however, Mac OS will suffer. If you do almost everything via your browser, it doesn’t much matter what OS you use. Macs have become relatively very expensive: a Mac laptop still costs $1000 or more while some Windows laptops cost only $500 (and smaller-screen Windows netbooks even less). In a post-credit-bubble economy, most people will be far less willing to pay the premium for a Mac.

Windows will lose out too. As laptop prices drop, the cost of Windows is getting to be a larger percentage of the overall cost of the machine, and it’s an obvious thing for the manufacturer to cut. Some netbooks don’t have Windows; others have it only as an extra-cost option.

So what’s ahead? There are three choices for most people’s next computer: Linux (free), Windows (more expensive, but with a reluctant price cut by Microsoft to stay in the game), and “nothing”. Fear not, Apple fans, Apple can still be a big player, via the “nothing” category. More in my next post!


Blogger Dave Till said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Saturday, December 6, 2008 at 3:31:00 p.m. EST  
Blogger Dave Till said...

Hi Rohan - hope you're doing well.

I just bought a new computer this week (my own attempt to provide an economic stimulus) and I found that I still need a lot of apps for it.

I regularly use Photoshop to manipulate images, iTunes to manage and play music (and Internet radio), and I play all sorts of interactive and non-interactive computer games.

What I think is happening, though, is that business-related tasks are increasingly becoming centralized. For example, people are starting to keep their email on Google and their documents in wikis.

Saturday, December 6, 2008 at 3:32:00 p.m. EST  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Hi Dave,

Photoshop is expensive, and not many people really need its power. In future, most people will use one of the online photo editors such as Picnik.

iTunes is a media player, on my list of core apps.

Games will make the transition to being fully online, but it will take a while because of the importance of instant response. Mozilla is speeding up JavaScript, which may make it practical to run games directly from a website. One of the advantages to the game vendor would be to let users try the game without having to install anything, which would increase sales.

Monday, December 8, 2008 at 2:33:00 a.m. EST  
Blogger mrG said...

May started using an EEE-PC 901 last summer and refuses to go back to the big-format machines; I've noticed a lot of people, most of them women, have switched to the ultra-portables, largely because, as you mention, all anyone ever uses anymore is the browser (included), some multimedia (divX/Xvid, mp3 and photo software included) and occasionally some sort of office-app (included), and with no moving parts (no hard drive) these things run forever on a charge, weight almost nothing, fit in a handbag, run quiet and do the job quite nicely.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 at 1:55:00 p.m. EST  
Blogger mrG said...

The key disadvantage I always found with both the Mac and the Windows O/S was the lack of true network support; the browser with Ajax is a hack fix, doesn't quite work, and whoo-whee look what it does to your CPU temperature gages!! This is why, even way back in our pre-Sympatico days, I was running Linux on my laptop; more than portable, it gave me a clear separation between my information and my access device, and this is the real disruption about to unfurl. As I told Macmillan's chief publisher in 2000, "Not only will you be able to access ALL your apps and data from your phone, laptop, PDA or your office desktop, you will be able to borrow MINE and gain equal access, or even borrow one from the front desk of the hotel. The device you use won't matter."

We're not there yet, although FreeNX comes close, but I did get really excited back three years ago when Google was making some pre-show noises about something new and innovative for the Vegas COMDEX; I wrote this pipedream piece on what I thought they might say but alas, all they announced was ... well ... no one remembers what they really said, and that fact probably proves my point more than anything else :)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 at 2:04:00 p.m. EST  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Hi Gary (mrG),

As usual, May and other women are the leaders when it comes to adopting usable technology. My theory is that because more men than women like "gadgets", men are more likely to ignore the complication of the OS, and they may even like it. Lots of men approach both computers and cars looking for way more power than they actually need, going for more GHz, RAM, etc. (or horsepower, cylinders, etc.) at the price of cash, battery life (or fuel economy), reliability, etc. Microsoft and Intel are still fixated on that market, which I'm sure will endure just like the market for powerful cars even though it will shrink in market share. (A few years ago I overheard a conversation between two big guys in biker-style leather jackets drinking beers in a bar. They were talking about the work they were doing on their respective machines: overclocking, expensive graphics cards, etc. In earlier times they'd have been limited to motorcycles or muscle cars.) Women tend to be much more concerned with practical matters (e.g. cupholders rather than turbochargers) and finally manufacturers like Asus are giving them decent choices (well, they have much further to go, but it's a great start). It's not just device size: the "powerful" UMPC pushed by Microsoft and Intel failed to get much traction, while Eee-style netbooks have caught on in a big way.

Saturday, December 20, 2008 at 8:16:00 a.m. EST  
Blogger Unknown said...

In the 1970s a centralized VAX with terminals might be typical of computer architecture. The end user had little responsibility or control over his data.

By 2000 we had moved to great decentralization... powerful PCs running powerful apps. The user now had complete control over his data... plus the burden of security.

You and Dvorak... have both recently commented that Web 2.0 is driving a return to the 1970s Vax plus terminals paradigm... under the guise of "cloud computing".

Not so fast. Not for serious businessmen with valuable data. I may trust my email to Google... but never anything more important.

Monday, February 16, 2009 at 5:20:00 p.m. EST  
Blogger mrG said...

George, that is all correct, and all of it in line with McLuhan's tetrads in his Laws of Media -- the new technology obsolesces the current by retrieving some lost feature of the technology before that. One step forward by two steps back :)

Monday, February 16, 2009 at 5:53:00 p.m. EST  

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