The return of the operating system

IT's future: open and browser-based SaaS, or closed, apped-up gardens?

In recent days, if not months and years, I have been arguing that Linux may soon become much more prevalent on the desktop PC, because as applications move to a software-as-a-service model handily served up by the now-ubiquitous browser, the underlying operating system would matter less and less.

I am not alone in this line of reasoning. My colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols wrote about this very same phenomenon just today. Computing, he argues, is about to become a commodity, not just at the hardware level, but at the operating system level, too.

Except now I beginning to wonder if this future of IT is really what's going to happen.

(That ka-chunk you just heard was my brain switching gears.)

It's not that I can't see a commoditized, SaaS-y future for users: I can, as HTML5 and better connectivity make it possible to deliver robust apps on browsers. But I can also see something far more worrisome: a new version of the operating system wars that could not only slice up the user base, but also atrophy and divide the Web as we know it.

Jonathan Zittrain touched on just this very notion in a Harvard Law School article last week, which declared the personal computer as dead--killed off by the rise of the walled gardens emphasized by Apple and (to a minor extent) Google's Android.

Zittrain's arguments can be boiled down to this: the popularity of the app store model on iOS (and Android) poses a real threat to developers and users as corporations seek to tighten control of their platforms… and seem to be getting what they want. Android is not a particularly bad offender, since users and developers still have an app conduit that lies outside the Android Market. But, Zittrain argues, the very fact that the app store is there may be enough to drive users to obtain their apps through the Market rather than another channel.

"The answer may lie in seemingly trivial places. Even one or two extra clicks can dissuade a user from consummating what he or she meant to do--a lesson emphasized in the Microsoft case, where the ready availability of IE on the desktop was seen as a signal advantage over users' having to download and install Netscape. The default is all-powerful, a notion confirmed by the value of deals to designate what search engine a browser will use when first installed."

If the Market makes app acquisition easier for a user, Zittrain is arguing, then the Market app might get picked up before a potentially better outside app… even on the more free Android platform. And on iOS, forget it; there's no such thing as an "outside" app, unless you jailbreak your iOS device.

What worries Zittrain the most is that the app store model has come back to the PC--at least, the Mac--in the form of the Mac App Store. Like Android, OS X users can still install software on their computers through other means, so this situation is not dire--yet. But here's where I think this might go if the app store model becomes more pervasive.

You can install software on an OS X machine now without using the Mac App Store, either through a disc or an online download. But what say Apple decides to stop shipping devices with disc drives, arguing (as they did for the Macbook Air) that software and media can just as easily be purchased and downloaded on the Web or (even better) iTunes? Suddenly, from an ease of use standpoint, OS X users will be drawn to the Mac App Store, and media will need to be purchased exclusively online, instead of bought in a store and played on the drive.

In fact, have you noticed it's slowly getting harder to buy an actual DVD movie these days? My local Barnes & Noble store just killed off the entire movie and music section and replaced it with a toy section, presumably to catch more of the kid's market and shunt media sales to its Nook and Web stores.

Now, in a disc-less Apple world, how much more of leap will it be to flip a switch and (in the name of "security") require all apps on a future OS X iteration be installed through the App Store?

That would be terrible news for free software developers, since Apple's iOS and Mac App Stores' terms of service currently prevent GPLed software distribution and sales. For the general developer, it represents bad news as well, since Apple would surely take a cut from any app in an exclusive OS X App store, just as it does now.

Okay, I've just painted a pretty scary picture of Apple, which wasn't all that attractive to free and open source software users to begin with. But here comes the scarier part: as the appification of OS X proceeds apace, and the popularity of apps-driven platforms like iOS and Android continues to explode, how much longer before other operating systems join the apps bandwagon?

Why, hello Windows 8.

And a little wave to you hiding back there, Unity.

Before I continue: why the appification of Apple's platforms is bad news for FLOSS, it does not hold that "appified" operating systems will pose a threat to FLOSS. Ubuntu, even with an app store and mobile-like interface in Unity, will obviously still let in FLOSS apps. And to be fair, I am not sure Microsoft would be dumb enough to try blocking FLOSS apps, especially after the antitrust convictions.

Except, gee, Apple seems to have done it, haven't they? What if Windows 8 got an app store with similar terms of service?

Beyond the potential threat to FLOSS, I am also increasingly concerned that the web as we know it--a collection of pages and files that can be read by (usually) any browser--will soon fade away.

Just look at e-commerce: already, major retailers do most of their selling and marketing via apps, and smaller businesses are encouraged to use apps of their own to sell their wares. But developing good apps, particularly action-oriented apps that want customers to do something--is not easy. In fact, it's not even that easy on "normal" web pages. Depending on who you ask, up to 40 percent of small businesses in the US aren't even online, and those that are usually have a basic "billboard" site that just lists their name and address and maybe a few (outdated) pictures of their products.

Now, try asking those businesses to come up with the knowledge and wherewithal to build an app. Even an HTML5 app. If SMBs, which are still remarkably underserved by technology, can't manage to build a relatively simple e-commerce site (and seriously, with WordPress, Joomla!, or Drupal, it is simple), how are they going to come up with the motivation to create an app?

They're not, and the big-box retailers know it.

Here's the most speculative part of my argument: as apps become more important, the browser interface may actually become less so. If that happens, then the Web could start to atrophy, as more and more content shifts to app-driven channels, and the World Wide Web starts to diminish just like Gopher did back in the 90s, as the Web became ascendant.

In such an environment, the operating system ironically becomes more important than ever, because not only will local apps be determined by the operating system, but also apps that drive online content to users, as well. We will find ourselves in a worse position than before, as vendors try to lock down how we view the online world.

Doomsaying? Perhaps. It could be that the more open, browser-based Web will indeed prevail, as independent developers reject the demands and restrictions of an app store mentality.

But if so many consumers adopt "appified" platforms, can developers help but follow them?

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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