Think back to 1995, to one of the biggest events of that year — Microsoft’s launch of Windows 95. Lines formed at computer stores. Mick Jagger performed the OS’s adopted theme song “Start Me Up.” Jay Leno emceed the launch event. Graphics! Icons! Toolbars! Everyone was excited.
Nowadays, outside of developers, does anybody really get excited about new OS launches anymore? Now the excitement is on the services that reside out on the Web — be it social networks or cloud-based services. Often anymore, the OS just seems like something that gets in the way.
That’s why Mat Honan’s latest poston Gizmodo was so intriguing — suggesting that Apple’s now-available iCloud represents the beginning of an era of computing without computers:
“For some of us, iCloud means we’re never buying another computer, and for the rest of us, iCloud will be the end of computing as we have always known it…. In the past ten years, [computers have] lept forward again and become easier than ever, but have still remained folder and hierarchy based. You have to have at least some basic understanding of how information is organized on them…. There are no more file systems and folders to manage. It doesn’t matter where you save something, you just start an app and there’s your data. Here are your pictures, your music, your documents and movies. Here are your apps and maps and all the things you care about. You don’t need to look for them, or move them from place to place. There’s no more manual syncing. No more worrying about backups. No more dragging and dropping one thing from one place to another. All you have to do now is hit the power button. That’s it.”
iCloud enables people to simply turn their screens on and there are their apps, services and data, all ready to go, Honan says, adding that “the logical end goal of iCloud is, of course, replacing the operating system itself. No more iOS, no more OS X, no more Windows. There are just the devices you turn on or off, and the data they store. iCloud is computing without the computing.”
iCloud, which went live on October 12th, is a synchronizing service for Apple devices, an online storage service, a photo-sharing service, and an online backup service, among other things.
I don’t know if iCloud will end computing as we know it, but it’s certainly part of a trend that’s been accelerating since the iPhone was first introduced a few years ago. The appeal of smartphones and tablets, along with their form factor, is the fact that you can turn them on, and they just work. No long boots, no visible patch downloads, no wondering about drivers, no fussing with settings.
The industry has long flirted with the vision of low-end computers that act as relatively simple interfaces to the wider network. In the late 1990s, IBM, Oracle and Sun Microsystems floated the idea of a diskless “network computer,” mainly for users within enterprises, that connected to the Internet for everything from browsing to word processing. But PC prices dropped, and the economics of network computing collapsed. In some ways, smartphones and tablet computers are picking up where network computers left off.
The operating system will never entirely go away, of course. It will just be less obvious. Even with iCloud and all the other cloud services that are available, we still need something to keep our client devices running as they should, while supporting resident browsers or apps. But with the combination of mobile devices and the cloud, the momentum is clearly going in the direction of computing without the computer.
UPDATE: A reader suggests a greater clarification — that the trends discussed in this article address the graphical user interface (GUI) and window manager function of the operating system, and not the core OS itself . As stated above, OSes themselves will not go away any time in the foreseeable future — every device or platform needs them for basic functions. In fact, even if a user turns on his or screen to access cloud (or iCloud) apps, there is still a full OS running behind that screen in the device. Increasingly, GUIs are shielding users from the behind-the-scenes “plumbing” and complexities of OSes, making them appear to be invisible.