Not all computer scientists are so sure of the effects mobile technology will have on desktop technology. “My personal perspective is that these are two different things,” says Sanjiv Bhatia, a computer scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “I cannot do on my iPhone what I want to do on my desktop.” If nothing else, the screen real estate isn’t there. For other obvious reasons—such as lack of disk space and processor power—a desktop device will always be different from a mobile one. Bhatia is also skeptical that the cloud will dominate our lives in the way that others predict. There are too many serious unresolved questions, he says—legal, privacy-related, security-related, and so on.
Bhatia doesn’t deny that some user-experience innovations are likely to trickle over from mobile. “If there’s a good thing developed in mobile OS that solves a problem in desktop, I should use it for sure,” he says. But in terms of underlying architecture and core capabilities, he thinks that the world of the mobile OS will always be stripped down, ersatz.
Barton Miller, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin, notes that many PC and mobile OSs are already fundamentally similar. “iOS is really MacOS X inside,” he says, “with layers on top to provide the familiar screen interface and to control the loading and execution of the various apps.” Similarly, he continues, Android is derived from Linux, as are the companies’ other operating systems. The OS groups at various companies “will continue to focus on basic design issues,” he suggests. The end user isn’t likely to feel the effects until design changes reach the higher levels—the user interface. “It’s the layers above [the core OS] that will be the part that is interesting to consumers,” he says.
Of the major software companies contacted for this story—including Apple, Microsoft, and HP—only Google would comment: “Both Chrome OS and Android are innovative open-source projects that are trying to improve the computing experience by approaching the opportunity from different perspectives. At Google we focus on the user and on fostering innovation. Rather than prejudging outcomes, we will continue to focus on users by enhancing choice and innovation in the ecosystem.”
If users do continue to switch devices more frequently and use the cloud more widely, though, then Dahlin’s vision of merging operating systems seems the most likely outcome. “If we do it right,” Dahlin says, speaking for OS designers, “then users shouldn’t have to be sloshing data back and forth between devices or worrying about where things live. That should just happen transparently. Imagine the way you want to think of a physical device: it’s a window on your data, but it’s not your data.”