Before I was an analyst, I can remember lamenting why the people in our industry were so obsessed with chips and operating systems. It was around the time when DEC released the Alpha RISC chip, and rivalry between the different strains of UNIX and Windows was at its highest point. The horse race between BSD, Xenix, Ultrix, AIX, Solaris, HP-UX, and Unix International seemed to be a life or death struggle. Meanwhile, Microsoft wasn’t in the horse race, but was building a horseless carriage.
Chip architectures were also popular points of discussion. At one point, I was able to sound reasonably informed about RISC architectures, multithreading and other stuff that seems pretty arcane to me now. Even then in the early 1990s, it all seemed a waste. Why so much attention to chips and operating systems? That should be far too low a level for most people to be worried about. It’s like spending hours discussing the type of nails and bricks used to build a house, while ignoring the room layout, window placement or paint color. I would think that applications and what end users see would be far more important than the details of the innards of the machines they run on.
Now, most people don’t worry about chips too much, unless you really like that sort of thing (and I am oh so glad that there are people who do, so I don’t have to). But we still seem obsessed with operating systems. Either because they are ho-hum (Windows Vista), might be less ho-hum (Windows 7), supposedly just work (MacOS X — although I disagree), or just sound really cool (Google ChromeOS).
Google has unleashed a flood of commentary and speculation by saying that it is thinking about a new PC operating system built around the Chrome browser. I will let my colleagues debate what this really means. But this all makes me a little sad. I thought that obsessing about an OS in 1993 was depressing; why are we still doing it in 2009? Next, I fear we will re-open the big-endian/little-endian compiler debate. Isn’t it much more important what we do with these operating systems? I was impressed with the thinking behind Google Wave because it shows what can be done with the clever technology under the hood. The thought of having another OS that gets in the way of what I want to do grinds down my soul like a bad third grade teacher.
I realize that operating systems and even chips are important. They make it possible to do the cool things that we can imagine. But sewers, roads, electrical grids and payment systems are important too without too much of the population having to pay too much attention to them. I will pay my share of what it costs to keep them going, but please don’t make me think about them; I have other things to do. That is how I want to think about operating systems; get out of the way and let me think about something really useful, and where I can make a difference, however small.