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Future of operating systems: simplicity

By David Gelernter
January 8, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Today's operating systems are conceptually upside-down. They developed the hard way, gradually struggling upwards from the machinery (processors, memory, disks and displays) toward the user. In the future, operating systems and information management tools will grow top-down.

Computing power should make life simpler, not weigh you down with fancy features. Computing power should unify your life online, help you pull threads together -- not add more virtual shoe boxes for information to get lost in. I have time for one screen in my life. I need to be able to tune in one single information structure and know that my whole digital life -- every document, every file type -- is in there. And I need to be able to tune in this structure from any Net-connected device anywhere.

But operating systems have been traveling in the exact opposite direction, away from unity and simplicity. Today, most users' documents are distributed over many computers (often three "main" ones: at home, at work and a laptop). Inside each computer, documents are scattered as if someone had dumped them out of a low-flying airplane: some in the file hierarchy or on the desktop; mail in the mailer; bookmarks in the browser; images, other multimedia types, calendar and address information in other boxes. If you own a PDA, Internet-enabled cell phone or other digital gadgets, you have even more boxes to lose things in.

This is not merely unacceptable, it's crazy. No one can work effectively in such an environment. No wonder "can't find my g*ddamned data!" keeps showing up in surveys asking, "What bothers you most at work?" No wonder Bill Gates said, in the summer of 2002, "Right now, file space in any PC is a cesspool." No wonder I said a year earlier, in a PC Expo speech, that "the file system is dead -- that permanent bureaucracy that grows inside all our computers like crab grass." (Gates and I, just two peas in a regular old pod.)

Today's information environment is, in this sense, a huge step backward from the world of, say, 1946. In 1946, you could say "Pull the Schwartz file," and the whole Schwartz dossier would be there -- letters, memos, reports, photos, jottings, resumes, publications, bills, contracts and receipts -- the whole story.

Current operating systems have traditionally been built bottom-up: Start with the machine, then connect it somehow to the user. Their goal is to package the processor, memory, disk and other peripherals (which are unmitigated nuisances to manipulate directly), so that you can manage them by remote control. Instead of moving bits around the disk, you drag file icons around the desktop.

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