What Should a Future Operating System Have?

posted by on 5th October 2010, at 2:47am

The genesis of this article was inspired by flipping through the pages of applications on the iPad I frequently use. I was also thinking about our September guest article from Chief Snake and what the level of choice in an operating system results in. From this, it lead me to ask whether it matters what the operating system is called. Does it matter how you navigate through the operating system? And finally, is our love of things familiar holding us back? Once these questions are answered I hope to provide a general outline of what an operating system of the future should look like.

Before we begin I am going to define the standard users of an operating system, for the purpose of this article, as teenagers who look at gaming with suspicion and are concentrated around their social networks.

Typically one is concerned about the use and operation of the operating system because it is something we all have become accustomed to. Ultimately this means that we micromanage our operating systems, because in the past we have had to for one reason or another. The first reason that comes to mind is the mind numbingly boring interface of the Windows 9x operating systems. We no longer need to micromanage our operating systems except for maybe a wallpaper change.

Micromanaging is not necessary because our typical user will start up their web browser and most likely point it at Facebook. IM chat applications will also be started. Combined, both these types of applications will take up a majority of the desktop space. Once these applications have been initialized, it’s a simple task to live in the web browser and IM application for the rest of your session. Once again, micromanaging the operating system is not necessary.

There will be other tasks going on while navigating Facebook, such as listening to music or playing RuneScape. A user should be free to switch between these applications without barrier. Another task that could be added to the list is watching a TV show on YouTube. Have you micromanaged your operating system while multitasking in the way described here? I’m guessing no.

This typical case of a teenager arriving home after school will be used throughout the rest of the article to describe how we can change our operating system to be better.

In order to accomplish our tasks so far does it matter whether you are using Linux, Mac OS, or Windows? It does not. They can all be accomplished on all three platforms without any trouble at all. The operating system we use has turned out to be something of habit, not a necessity at all.

Another question: does it matter how you navigate through your operating system? Most of the time applications in our scenario will be started by a simple web browser. There may be a couple of other applications that are needed, but those can be started with a single click in the Windows taskbar or the Mac OS X dock. On a macro level the metaphor of a desktop space with icons makes sense. What does not make sense is needing to move through a folder (start menu or Applications folder on OS X) in order to find an application that we want. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how you launch your web browser and IM application of choice.

The past two questions that I’ve described are mostly limiting users in that people are creatures of habit, most of the time. Habit is one of the reasons more revolutionary changes in user interfaces are hard to develop. According to user interface rules, if the system is useless (back end of the operating system) or the interface itself is useless the productivity of the user is zero. This is why we seldom see radical user interface changes.

From this point on the rest of this article will focus on what a potential future operating system could be. It will also make some important distinctions in the future of computing. From a high level the operating system’s task is to provide an interface to common tasks that must be completed. This can be extended to our earlier use cases in that Facebook, YouTube, and messaging are our core tasks to accomplish daily.

These can easily be accomplished under Linux, Mac OS, or Windows. It, however, could be accomplished more efficiently in a tuned operating system. The operating system would be tuned for small applications and general Internet browsing. A good example of such an operating system currently in use is iOS. Looking down from a higher level, all this means is that in order to accomplish tasks, an operating system of the future should be tuned to its specific task.

A future operating system should be efficient in terms of resource usage. A good example to the contrary is all the bloat that tends to accumulate in poorly maintained Windows systems over time. The amount of time one wastes starting, shutting down, installing updates, and performing other security related tasks has to be astronomical considering the massive install base of Windows. An operating system of the future should attempt to minimize the maintenance and care needed over time.

Our future operating system should also be intuitive to use and easy to learn. When modern operating systems add layers of settings and controls, they become harder to learn and master. Referring back to my inspiration for this article, I’m not saying that they should be locked down. The operating system of the future should have just enough control to allow an advanced user to access those fine tuning options, albeit in an elegant manner.

These three aspects of a future operating system are just ones that have come off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more that could be found through in depth studies of how we use our current operating systems. This outline of the future operating system would be ideal but as I have said previously we are unlikely to see any major changes to operating systems we know. This means our hope must lie within new and upcoming operating systems.

Some new upcoming operating systems I’d like to note are: iOS (Apple), Android (Google), Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry, and Google Chrome OS. Three of the above mentioned operating systems are targeted at the mobile space. This is in part due to the fact that previously mobile operating systems weren’t all that great. Google Chrome OS is interesting since the main objective is to provide a lightweight Internet based operating system.

It’s a definite possibility that Apple will be the company to pull ahead and pioneer the small lightweight consumer OS (iOS) by adding an iOS type mode to Mac OS. Microsoft could end up with a portion of this space as well depending on how Windows Phone 7 pans out. It’s without a doubt we’ll see BlackBerry excel at the business space. Google will probably end up as a secondary choice for the consumer space with Android while Chrome OS will end up being used on laptop style devices since Android will inevitably make its way onto the upcoming pad computers.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into our potential future. What are your whines about your current operating system that are unable to be tackled due to the lack of revolutionary updates? Or simply put, what are the biggest issues you face day to day with your operating system? As always feel free to contact me on the forums.

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