For decades now, we've been fussing about operating systems. "Mac OS X is better than Windows!" "Why upgrade to Windows 7 when XP works just fine?" "You're all wrong. Linux rules." Such arguments are about to become history.
Thanks to advances in virtualization, cloud technology and the Web, it matters less and less to users which operating system is behind their desktop screens -- or, for that matter, their tablet and smartphone displays.
Don't get me wrong. Operating systems will remain important for as long as we use computers. But for the most part, they are going to matter only to the people behind the scenes.
Look at the desktop. More and more applications can be used with just a Web browser. Indeed, Google's Chrome operating system is built around the idea that a browser is all a user really needs, and Google extends that idea through a software ecosystem that includes Gmail for email and Google Docs for office software. The primacy of the Web browser is arriving just as advances in Web technology, such as the rise of HTML5, are making the browser ever more powerful. (And if you don't believe that HTML5 is a real advance, then you haven't noticed that Adobe, for all intents and purposes, is abandoning its flagship media format, Flash, for HTML5.)
Meanwhile, software as a service, which used to be just for business applications, is becoming more common in user settings. This isn't just Google's plan. Other options include programs like Dropbox, which offers users universal access to storage without any need for a file server. Meanwhile, Apple, with iCloud, is moving both data storage and services such as media serving, email and contact management to the cloud. And Microsoft is moving this way as well, with offerings like Office 365.
In the business world, the old client/server model is being phased out as cloud-based services take over more and more functions. Users -- and sometimes CIOs and CTOs, for that matter -- increasingly have no idea where their applications and data actually "live." The IT staff may know that the cloud is in a given data center, but that's it. A similar progression is occurring in the consumer world, with personal storage and services going to the cloud.
Behind all of this, in the data centers that constitute the cloud, rack after rack of servers spin up virtual operating-system instances as needed to meet the demands of users. Back in IT, there's no longer a need to fulfill that demand by breaking a physical server out of storage. Instead, an automated program or a system administrator simply requests more storage or CPU power.
What all of this means is that, in business and in the home, the operating system you're running and the type of device you're using -- PC, tablet or smartphone -- will have dwindling importance (for users, that is; how all of this happens behind the scenes is still going to matter a lot). The things that will matter to users will be having sufficient bandwidth and a good Web browser.
In short, computing is going to become a commodity. As long as our Internet connection stays up, we'll give our operating system no more thought than we currently give to the details of how electrical power comes into our homes.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.