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Saturday, December 20, 2008

The decline, Part 2, of the personal-computer operating system

At the end of my previous post I mentioned “nothing” as one of the possible operating systems on most people’s next computer. With quotes, because an operating system is unavoidable – but it can be more or less invisible. What operating system does a BlackBerry have? I’m not sure – the manufacturer refers to BlackBerry Device Software while others refer to the BlackBerry Operating System. Contrast this with a PC running Windows: if you have Windows, Microsoft will make very sure that you know it. Even though so many users curse it! Wouldn’t it be nice for ordinary users not to have to deal with an “operating system”?

I happen to know that my Treo smartphone runs PalmOS, but just like on the BlackBerry, the operating system isn’t really visible. There is a “Prefs” application (which I access just like any other application) where I can change the phone ringtones, set how quickly the screen shuts off to save power, and some other things. There are no “files”.

Personal computers for most people should be like that. And they will be. Computers with a visible operating system (whether Windows or Mac OS X or Linux) will be used only by “power users”. (Under the hood, I expect Linux to dominate this market, and the iPhone has OS X which is very closely related to Mac OS X.)

As I said in my previous post, given the increasing price gap between a netbook and a MacBook, and an economic recession/depression, Apple can’t expect to keep selling expensive MacBooks at the same pace it has been. But it’s clearly reluctant to drop the price as long as a substantial number of people are still willing to pay the premium. One way for Apple to respond to the advent of netbooks would be to introduce one that isn’t a Mac but is more or less an iPhone or iPod Touch with a much larger screen. A good writeup on this can be found here, with subsequent speculation that it could happen as early as January 2009. Such a device would be a netbook, but the first netbook with the potential to be reasonably consumer-friendly because there would be no visible operating system. (Well, except for the OLPC XO-1, but that’s intended only for children; adults often have trouble using it.)

One thing that happened with the arrival of the IBM PC and its Microsoft-sourced operating system was that control of the user experience largely shifted from the computer manufacturer to the operating-system vendor. Windows computers are all used pretty much the same way. As the operating system “disappears” on most future netbooks (and never really appeared on smartphones, with the possible exception of Windows Mobile), the manufacturer will once again largely determine the user experience. This would obviously be the case on an iPhone-like netbook from Apple, but would also be true on a netbook that ran Linux but with a manufacturer-created user interface to hide the operating system.

An Apple netbook might also have a larger screen than netbooks to date, allowing Apple to justify a higher price. I personally would cheer, as my one complaint about existing netbooks is their small screens. Since I’m not already in the Apple ecosystem I don’t think I’d be a customer, but such a move by Apple might prompt other manufacturers to build a consumer-friendly (i.e. hidden operating system) netbook with a decently sized screen. Perhaps I’ll start saving the pennies now.

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