The return of the operating system

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

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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.

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