Successful operating-system designs continue to pay off big, though increasingly in cases where the system is well integrated with hardware. Apple’s experience is illustrative. For years, people advised Steve Jobs, Apple’s cofounder and chief, to decouple the Mac OS from the company’s hardware. Jobs never did. Indeed, he moved in the opposite direction. With the iPod and then the iPhone, he built new operating systems ever more integrated with hardware–and these products have been even more successful than the Macintosh. “For Apple, software is a means to an end,” says Jean-Louis Gassée, who once served as the company’s chief of product development and who has since founded his own OS and hardware company, Be. “They write a good OS so they can have nice margins on their aluminum laptop.”
The effort to create a good OS carries risks. The biggest one for Google is that expectations will outstrip results. Even though the company plans to use a number of freely available pieces of computer code–most notably the Linux “kernel,” which delivers basic instructions to hardware–its new system can’t be assembled, like a Lego plaything, out of existing pieces. Some pieces don’t exist, and some existing ones are deficient. There is the real chance that Google might tarnish its reputation with an OS that disappoints.
Then there is the risk that cloud computing won’t deliver on its promise. Privacy breaches could spoil the dream of cheap and easy access to personal data anywhere, anytime. And applications that demand efficient performance may founder if they are drawn from the cloud alone, especially if broadband speeds fail to improve. These unknowns all present substantial threats.
David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale University, has described the chief goal of the personal-computer OS as providing a “ ’documentary history’ of your life.” Information technology, he argues, must answer the question “Where’s my stuff?” That stuff includes not only words but also photos, videos, and music.
For a variety of good reasons–technical, social, and economic–the cloud will probably never store and deliver enough of that “stuff” to render the OS completely irrelevant. You and I will always want to store and process some information on our local systems. Therefore, the next normal in operating systems will probably be a hybrid system–a “magic” blend, to quote Adobe’s chief technology officer, Kevin Lynch. Predicting just how Microsoft and Google will pursue the magic blend isn’t possible. “We hope we are in the process of a redefinition of the OS,” Eric Schmidt told me in an e-mail. But one thing is certain: the new competition in operating systems benefits computer users. Microsoft will do more to make Windows friendlier to the new networked reality. No longer a monopoly, the company will adapt or die. It’s worth remembering that in the 1970s, AT&T, then the most powerful force in the information economy, “made a set of decisions that doomed it to slow-motion extinction,” says Louis Galambos, a historian of business and economics at Johns Hopkins. “Microsoft is not immune to ‘creative destruction.’ ”
Neither is Google. To completely ignore operating systems in favor of the cloud might be an efficient route to failure. And there is much to admire in the very attempt to create a new one. For Brin and Page, it is as much an aesthetic and ethical act as it is an engineering feat.
G. Pascal Zachary wrote Showstopper on the making of Windows NT.
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.