The application is the new the operating system

Apple has changed the way we think about operating systems, by helping us to forget the operating system entirely.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

If you're a Google Nexus One user, you experienced a bit of magic last week.

In one click of an over-the-air update, your Nexus One became an iPhone--offering the ability to pinch and expand the screen to zoom in or out.

Can you spot the OS in this picture?

Just one click, with little to no user intervention. That's what operating systems look like in the 21st century, a future more clearly playing out in mobile than in the more traditional realms of personal computers and servers.

Apple is leading the way on this, but application developers have been quick to pick up on the trend.

Consider, for example, Apple's forthcoming iPad. According to Funambol's Fabrizio Capobianco:

The iPad is a new paradigm of human-computer interaction. The desktop is gone. The folders are gone. The documents live inside the app. The device transforms itself in the object it becomes. It is a non-object. It is what you want it to be. One touch on an icon, it is a calculator. No folders, no files, just numbers as if you were holding a calculator. One touch and it is a notepad. One touch and it is a picture frame. It is the future of computing.

The iPad is the replacement of the home desktop computer.

Why? Because it simplifies the user experience to what they actually want to do, removing all the complexity as to how it is actually done. Open-source developers have been slow to pick up on this, thinking that everyone wants to muck around in source code, or at least have the ability to do so.

We don't. Not average users. We just want our machines to work for us. We don't want to have to work for them.

Facebook gets this, and particularly so in its mobile incarnation. On the personal computer, Facebook is relatively easy but a bit too cluttered, a bit too PC-like. On the iPhone, Facebook is magically simple to use. Facebook was made for this "operating system-free" world.

No wonder Facebook is the king of mobile, according to studies of mobile usage.

In this post-PC, post-OS world, can open source play a leading role?

I think so, as does Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin. But it's going to require a very different kind of open source than we've hitherto experienced. We need open-source development communities that demonstrate keen appreciation for end-user requirements, with as much emphasis on user interfaces as underlying architecture.

We need to create the same sort of "magic" that Apple does, the kind that makes former Red Hat marketing lead Chris Grams suggest that "no company can make more folks put their beliefs aside for a shiny new object quicker than Apple."

Open source needs that shiny-ness, without the sacrifice of freedom.

We're already starting to deliver, as Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols notes, but we need to do better. We need to be less Dickens, to borrow from Gartner analyst Thomas Otter, and more revolutionary.

Here's where to begin: stop thinking about the OS and start thinking about the network. Call it cloud or whatever you like, but the magic of the iPhone is not in its OS. It's in the fact that the iPhone OS gets out of the way as users connect with the Internet in increasingly interesting ways.

Open source is a child of the Internet. Linux is the first true network operating system. All that is still needed, therefore, is to eradicate the fixation with file systems and other remnants of the 20th-century PC and then look beyond to the network--one that happily runs Linux, but in the background, letting the user experience the Web and its applications first and foremost and not worry about how the application is running.

Apple can do this because it isn't concerned about selling OSes. That's not where the money is. One of the reasons Microsoft so often stumbles is because it is chained to its decades-old Windows revenue stream, as former executive Dick Brass recently opined.

Guess what? Open source is more Apple than Microsoft in this respect. We don't need to monetize the OS. Linux is free.

Now we just need to focus on innovation, and by "innovation" I don't mean coming up with "gee whiz!" shiny, new objects. Open source can follow Apple's (and Microsoft's) lead, as Gavin Clarke writes in The Register:

In the past, and even with some of the new ideas like Bing and Azure and a hosted version of Office, it's been a case of Microsoft following others. One of its strengths, like Apple, has been in taking an existing idea and making it work better as it did on Windows and Office in the 1980s and 1990s. Not so much innovating the new, as innovating the existing.

So, it's a question of focus. Focus on the user. That's not to say that developers go by the wayside, but that the most successful commercial open-source projects will be those that remember who their customers are, not just who their development community is.

As we do this, we can surpass Apple in refining the future of the operating system, letting applications, and particularly Web applications, dominate the computing experience, instead of making customers plod through file systems and other remnants of a bygone era.