Operating Systems for Humans

OS for a  steam trainBy Jeffrey the Barak

Even people who shun computers, smartphones, remote controls and anything with a recognizable interface cannot avoid operating systems.

If they adjust their home’s heating and cooling, or cook in a microwave, or operate a modern motor vehicle they are in a small way using an operating system. The bridge of a steamship is an operating system. The reigns and stirrups of a horse’s livery are an operating system.

But an operating system is usually thought of as an interface between a user and a computer, whether that be a desktop computer, a mobile telephone, or something in between.

What was once abstract and hard to connect with human thought, (think punched cards), is now intuitive, involving keyboards, touch screens etc, that seem natural to use.

While it was, and still is, programming language that makes these basically binary things work, it is the operating system that the user interfaces with.

In the 1980s BASIC and DOS were commonly used front ends for the job of running a program on a computer with a keyboard and display screen for people who did not work as programmers. And then one day there was the Apple Macintosh, and Microsoft Windows 3.0, and all of a sudden, everyone and his auntie could use a personal computer for all sorts of useful things, and the world changed. Sure there were other choices in home computing before these two dominant systems, but they did not take us to where Windows PCs and Macs have taken us.

While Sinclair, Acorn, Apricot and Commodore have headed to the museum, Microsoft and Apple have kept us working and playing ever since the eighties. Look at the Wikipedia page for “Timeline of Operating Systems” to be reminded of all the dead ends and foundations for later systems that you may have forgotten about.

Today, mobile operating systems are more widespread than computer operating systems. In computers, Windows PCs and Macs take up most of the room, with Linux filling most of the remaining slither. But Smartphones and Tablets that have evolved from iconic tools such as the Palm Pilot, the Psion Organizer and the Newton, seem to be in everyone’s pocket or purse.

And so today we are looking at Android, the oh-so-easy iOS, and Windows 8 as the operating systems that most humans interface with. Blackberry has risen and fallen into a small niche group, and Symbian is on the way to the museum after a very rapid decline, and in the face of dominance by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, it is unlikely that a new player will be breaking in anytime soon. Even today’s vastly improved Microsoft Windows, which is now a million times better to use than how millions remember it, is in a very distant third place in most people’s awareness.

Say “operating system” today, and the majority people in the world will see Android in their mind’s eye. And Android is frankly a bit of a mess and not that easy to use for many. But that is where we are, and I doubt that anyone would sacrifice their new Android smartphone for anything running AmigaOS, PalmOS, Solaris, MorphOS, or even the other current systems such as Blackberry10 or Windows.

And if it is an Apple user, then anything else is unlikely to tempt them away.

But it would be naive to think that we are definitely on the right path. It will only take one clever breakthrough to make us think, “How did we ever put up with Android and iOS and OSX and Windows? Why didn’t we have this (system to be determined) before?”

Jeffrey the Barak has played in various OS but only likes OSX.


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