posted by David Adams on Tue 12th May 2009 15:03 UTC
IconThis week I received a triumphal press release from the Open Document Foundation, announcing that the just-released Microsoft Office 2007 SP2 has native support for the ODF (Open Document Format) file format. This makes the latest MS Office "the last major office suite to support ODF." This set me to thinking about how movement and advancement in several areas of technology and interoperability may well invigorate the alternative OS world.

File formats have been used by market leaders throughout the history of computing as tools to prevent their users from switching to other platforms and keep them upgrading to the latest version. Microsoft seems to change its Office file formats with every version, and as soon as users of the new versions start sharing files with the new format, it makes the recipients need to upgrade too. And forget about using an alternative operating system that doesn't have an office suite that will perfectly render the latest Microsoft file formats if you want to be able to interoperate with the rest of the world. It's the latest version of Windows and the latest version of office, or you're boned.

Among the OSNews editors from time to time we've worried that the OS world is becoming "too boring." I suppose it's quite a bit less boring than it was in the early to mid nineties when, despite the fact that Windows sucked, Apple was in the doldrums and Linux was not yet ascendant and it seemed that Microsoft was going to conquer the world with mediocrity. But as some of the new and exciting platforms matured and found their markets, and others stagnated or faded away, the desktop OS world has coalesced around three strong platforms that have each staked out their own niche. It's really never been a better time to be a computer user. You've got several really good operating systems to choose from. But it's maybe a little less fun to be a vanguard or a fierce OS partisan.

The inclusion of ODF in Office 2007 may seem like a baby step, but it's actually the latest in a series of events, both technological and business-oriented, that have, step by step, made the computing world a friendlier and easier place for users of alternative operating systems and computing platforms. And with the exciting things happening in the world of mobile computing, from netbooks and MIDs to the iPhone and the Pre, we're seeing more action in the OS space, whether it's familiar OSes being upgraded and modified to run on new devices, or new OSes for new platforms.

You put a whole bunch of baby steps together, and it makes an epic journey. That's where we've found ourselves, dear readers, I believe. We've recently reached some major milestones on our journey of a vibrant and heterogeneous computing landscape. These milestones are:

  • A serious, worldwide commitment to open file formats
  • The rise of Rich Internet Applications
  • The ubiquitous, broadband internet
  • The popularization of Cloud computing
  • New, popular mobile computing platforms
Taking advantage of open file formats to combat vendor and platform lock-in involves two steps. First, the software you use needs to properly support open file formats. The best solution is that the software's default file format is an open standard. If that's the case, then both steps have already been taken. But in the case of an app that doesn't use an open file format by default, such as the new Microsoft Word 2007 SP2, the key is "properly." Just because an app will allow you to export to an open file format, doesn't mean you won't lose formatting, functionality, or editability. It's almost guaranteed that some of the app's functionality won't be supported in the open format, and as long as vendors are locking users into their file format feature-by-feature, we won't reach the promised land. But in many cases, the stuff you're giving up by saving as ODF or OOXML is functionality you're not using anyway. So step one is determining whether your app of choice will save your work in an open format without an unacceptable loss of functionality. Once you've reached that point, then make sure you save all of your documents in that format and set your app to use that format by default. Step two is share your documents in that format and use every file exchange as an opportunity to evangelize open formats.

As important as desktop applications are to everyday computer users, it may have been the breaking down of barriers between server-based apps that's had the larger impact. The rise of XML as a lingua-franca for inter-machine communication has enabled the internet as we know it, and been an essential component in the next pillar of the revolution: Rich Internet Applications. As more people are using online apps to compose, collaborate on, and share information, the document as we've known it almost becomes irrelevant, and even though these apps often use open file formats to preserve interoperability with other systems, the data sharing happens quite transparently, which is one of the strengths of online apps. But the impact of internet apps is much larger than that. They have already completely transformed software development, whether we realize it or not.

In the immortal words of Steve Ballmer: "Developers, developers, developers, developers, developers!" Platform monopolies happen in large part because software developers want to become successful without doing a lot of extra work. When a developer chooses to write an application for only the market-leading OS, it's a logical, reasonable decision. And the smaller the niche platforms are, the less likely that the kind of software users want will be developed for that platform, particularly if what they want falls outside of the standards (Word processing, spreadsheet, web browser, solitaire, etc). A lack of apps is the single greatest challenge facing any emerging platform, and even with all the momentum they have, many Linux and Mac users still face challenges occasionally when software they need is only developed for Windows, or when the versions or workalikes developed for their platforms aren't feature-complete.

Rich Internet Applications, which is just a fancy term for web-based apps that feel like desktop apps, are now so common we don't even really think about most of them. Some of the highest-profile ones, such as Google Apps, are prominent for their failures as much as their successes. People are still skeptical that web-based office suites will ever unseat Microsoft Office. And Google Apps does have a long way to go to being a feature-for-feature replacement for Office. But the fact that we're past discussing whether anyone can build a good web-based word processor (you can, and there are several) and on to the relative quality of the web-based upstarts compared to the industry leader just goes to show how far the revolution has progressed. But I think the most revolutionary internet apps are the ones that are practically invisible. Back in the bad old days, if you wanted a mortgage calculator, or to see what your phone number spells, or to manage your finances, or store notes and files on a project, you would go to the store and buy a desktop-based application. Nowadays, small apps like that are completely out of the picture. Not only can you do all of those things and more with online apps, you can do them for free, and with a better user experience and more functionality. The modern internet has made the majority of desktop apps irrevocably unnecessary. Now, there are the holdouts, which by nature usually involve high horsepower requirements or large file sizes, where it's just impractical. But just as few would have predicted a few years ago the Google Apps account with 7 gigs of free disk space? Who knows what the next decade will bring?

Microsoft dedicated itself to putting Netscape out of business in the nineties precisely because Netscape was dedicated to turning the web browser into the new desktop computing platform, and bringing developers of small-time apps over from developing for Windows to developing for Netscape. A decade later, Microsoft's worst fears have come to pass. With every major software-as-a-service innovation, the underlying operating system becomes less and less central to the computing experience.

Cloud Computing is a term that's tied up with RIAs and SaaS, but I want to address it separately because it affects the OS ecosystem separately. On the server side, cloud computing has changed the whole concept of what a computer is. One machine may now play host to dozens of individual servers, or hundreds of machines may be combined to work as one system, and the kids of services that these "clouds" enable, make it possible for end users to extend their local machines' capabilities infinitely. Whether you want to backup and archive your files, offload processor-intensive calculations to a powerful array, or use an online app that lets you interact with other networked users and web services, cloud computing turns your computer, even a limited computer like a netbook or iPhone, into a window onto a world of unlimited computing power. RIAs and cloud computing have, if not broken, at least injured the back of the hardware upgrade treadmill. Ordinary people no longer need huge disks and massive, power-hungry processors to do the kind of computing they want to do. Likewise, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the client OS become less important. Why would I care about the filesystem of my OS if all of my files are stored at Google Apps anyway? Apple's Time Machine is a lot less interesting when I'm using Mozy anyway.

So Rich Internet Apps and Cloud Computing enable the use of lighter-weight mobile computing devices and cheap "netbook" laptops. The fact that most of the really interesting computing platform innovation is coming out of mobile computing these days, and the fact that the dominant desktop OSes aren't perfectly suited for these devices means that new opportunities for innovation are opening up on the OS front, and maybe the OS world will become at bit less "boring." Unless you're a gamer, you're probably pretty satisfied with your desktop computer hardware, and you'll probably stay that way for a long time. And if you use a laptop, you're probably more eager to upgrade to get a better or smaller form factor, and if you want a new processor, it's probably to get one that's more power-efficient and will help your battery last longer. Owning a netbook today is just like having a itty bitty computer with the performance of a big expensive computer from six or seven years ago. We've been living with a drumbeat of "faster, faster" for decades now, and the gradual switch of that demand to "smaller, lighter, more portable, differently shaped, more intuitive, with new input methods, and longer battery life" is completely transforming the industry.

The Windows, Mac, Linux desktop OS trifecta is being wedged open by mobile devices, and now includes Windows, Mobile Windows, Mac OS, iPhone OS, various versions of Linux including Android, Blackberry, and a resurgent Palm. And our choices in hardware include desktops, laptops, mini-laptops, touchscreen handhelds, smartphone handhelds, tablets, and even tabletop interfaces. Of these, touchscreen handhelds and their mythical larger cousins the tablets are where most of the action seems to be happening. Because of their input challenges and purpose-specific nature (ebook readers, media players, etc) these devices are able to be attractive to the market even without a familiar, mainstream OS. And with the rise of web apps, open file formats, the ubiquitous network, and cloud computing, these upstart devices and their OSes won't face the kind of uphill battle that Be, Amiga, NeXT, and every other upstart platform had to face. If the 2009 equivalent of BeOS were launched today, and it ran on a few inventive and attractive mobile devices, it might be a wild success. Let's all hope so.

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