Once Again: Our Future Operating Systems

posted by on 31st March 2012, at 4:57pm

Not even a year ago I was discussing the changes that would be coming in summer 2011 to Mac OS X, Lion. A year later it’s time to discuss more changes to the operating systems we use (primarily). Last month Apple announced that they would be releasing another operating system this summer, Mountain Lion. For quite some time Microsoft has been keen to show off the next version of Windows, Windows 8. Surprising right? Not anymore.

Since the advent of smartphones and their operating systems the pace of desktop operating system development has increased. The same goes for websites like Twitter and Facebook, it’s easier to release new features faster on the web than it is for standard software. This isn’t just due to the idea that Apple and Microsoft want to release another operating system to turn a profit, it’s due to the way software development has evolved. This is not just a random idea to push more changes down the pipe quickly. It’s one aspect of a new way of creating software known as Agile Software Development. Agile software development is not the focus of this article but a key aspect of it, releasing frequently, is why we’re getting new operating system releases every year. Through agile development the end user gets a better product because the software in question is modified based on user feedback and released faster than it would be with standard development methods. If anyone wants to know more about agile development, send me a message.

So now that we know why we’re seeing Mountain Lion and Windows 8 let’s take a look at some of the features that each operating system will ship with. In general both operating systems will be taking more cues from their mobile cousins. This is the way operating systems are going in the future since for the last 20 years core metaphors of both OS X and Windows have remained unchanged.

I’m going to start with Windows 8 since I think Microsoft is offering the most radical changes with their forthcoming release. The changes Microsoft made are the result of needing to ensure that their consumer base does not get bored of the same old operating system. The Windows shell has remained largely the same since Windows 95 which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in some cases. Microsoft internally probably feels they need to compete with Apple even though they don’t on an operating system front. Finally, going back to the agile development principles, Windows needs to be refreshed.

The first effort made by Microsoft to address the three points above is Metro. Metro is the user interface that was first unveiled with Windows Phone and later the Xbox. Metro is a tile based interface that is optimized for touch primarily. With that being said I feel that the interface is perfectly usable with a conventional mouse. This is one of the most controversial changes in Windows 8 since Metro is the default launcher for programs seeing as it has replaced the start menu. Metro makes Windows 8 simple to use, it makes Windows 8 usable enough that people who are not comfortable with a regular computer would be able to make effective use of the operating system without much issue. For everyone else, the workflow is the same:

  1. Move mouse to bottom left corner of screen and click.
  2. Select desired program from tile list or start typing to search.

I feel the Metro UI is one of the strong points of Windows 8 and has the ability to define the entire operating system experience. As of the latest consumer preview Microsoft does need to add a little tutorial when you first start up Windows 8 explaining the hot corners. Aside from that I feel Metro will be a positive experience providing the end users allow the operating system to guide them in a new way of doing things.

Another item that defines Windows 8 comes with Metro. The Metro sandbox is an effort by Microsoft to make the operating system safer to use. Any application downloaded through the Windows 8 app store will be sandboxed. This means that should anything go wrong with that application or even worse someone tries to make something go wrong, that application is isolated from the rest of the system. This model is a godsend for Windows, so many of the applications that can be found on the internet for free are garbage and not exactly the safest. This will go a long way to make trying out new Windows software safer.

Another feature that I am excited about is the new restore feature in Windows 8. One of the things any Windows user will know is that after a good year of using a Windows install, installing and uninstall programs, modifying settings, the computer will appear to slow down. Microsoft is including a feature to restore Windows to the default state but automatically keep all of the users applications and documents. Nice.

Windows 8 will also make heavy use of your Microsoft account. This is the account that is used for Windows Live Mail (if you use that), Xbox, and other cloud based services. This is used as your login to Windows 8 and provides you with an interface to other Microsoft features including pictures, music, and video. This is similar to what happens on Windows Phone and Xbox. This is a key step for Microsoft as it’s creating a central Microsoft experience.

Mountain Lion by its name suggests that it’s a release that will build on what was released in Lion. While Mountain Lion will bring changes, the changes won’t be as radical as the changes found in Windows 8. Mountain Lion will focus on refining the user experience and limiting the differences between iOS and OS X.

One of the first changes that Apple is going to be bringing to Mountain Lion is increased iCloud support. iCloud is the service that allows for online storage at Apple’s servers of documents, pictures, calendars, contacts, mail, and more. iCloud integration in Mountain Lion will be in every application that supports saving files rather than just those where the developers deem it necessary as in Lion. This means that you’ll be able to pick up an application on OS X and open the edited document on the same application on your iOS device without developers doing much more work.

Following the same iOS trend, Apple will be bringing more iOS applications to OS X. These include Game Center, Messages, Reminders, and Notes. By bringing these applications to Mountain Lion Apple is essentially tightening the Apple experience so that it’s relatively similar whether you’re using iOS or OS X. Apple could have just kept these applications exclusive to iOS but that would not have allowed OS X to evolve in the direction a single experience and maybe even towards a single operating system.

Mountain Lion is also simplifying some very key aspects of any operating system. First, Apple is including a notification centre in Mountain Lion, much like the notification centre one finds on iOS. Mountain Lion is also receiving Twitter share sheets to share practically anything without the need to visit Twitter or use a third-party client. Finally much like the Windows App Store, Apple is introducing new optional policies to force applications to be downloaded only from the App Store or identified developers.

With the changes highlighted in both the upcoming releases of OS X and Windows we could very well be on the dawn of a new era of desktop operating systems. They’ll still look like the conventional desktops we know but they’ll act more like smart phones. They’ll update quicker and focus on providing to the point interactions by cutting down on fluff. I personally feel that this is one step towards a different type of operating system but no one, not even the UI designers know what that futuristic operating system will look like. What do you think the next operating systems will look like? Do you like where operating systems are going? Let me know in the discussion topic.

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