It's called an "operating system" for a reason...

>> Monday, June 22, 2009

I have a peeve. That's a lie. I have many peeves.

Here's one: people who refer to an applications suite as an operating system, which is basically what Chris Wilson did last week in Slate, writing a sort of fluffy piece about cloud computing (in which, ironically, he managed to not actually mention cloud computing; go figure).

The confusion is understandable: Microsoft and Apple have spent decades now marketing all of the extraneous, not-really-OS features of their products--things like the GUI and the web browser and the media player. One reason is because of trade dress--the need for Microsoft and Apple to retain distinctive appearances in order to preserve their intellectual property, specifically their trademarks. Another reason is that OSes aren't sexy; only a geek is interested in things like multithreading and the kernel's memory footprint, and an ad-campaign focusing on device drivers has "FAIL" written all over it compared to one that asks "Where Do You Want To Go Today?" or features a pair of actors roleplaying a "PC" and a Mac who spar in a friendly Odd Couple sort of way over who's sick and who's social and who's frumpy and boring.

So there's kind of a perception out there that an OS is its interface and accessories, and maybe even its applications. Well, no: the OS is the software that tells your computer how to be a computer. Windows isn't Word, it's a piece of software that interprets the mounds of code that make up Word and then communicates between that running application and the hardware--allocating random access memory for the program, telling the hard drive how to save files, telling the graphics card what to send to the monitor, and interpreting keyboard and mouse input. It's worth mentioning that in a sense the OS isn't there for the user at all: e.g. the OS translates keyboard input and sends the data to the application whether a user is typing or his cat has run across the keyboard, and sends messages from the application to the graphics card whether there's a monitor plugged in or not.

Wilson subscribes to this confusion when he writes:

In the last few years, scores of applications that your operating system used to manage have migrated to the browser: word processors, IM clients, e-mail, games, music players, personal finance tools, and on and on. Which leads inevitably to the question: If the primary function of computers these days is to run a browser and connect to the Internet, do we really need Windows and its 50 million lines of code?

This is a situation where I have to be fair to Microsoft: while Windows is bloated, one reason for that bloat is that Windows is expected to do too much: Windows is expected by end-users to handle an enormous number of legacy applications and a bewildering variety of hardware right out of the box. When one factors in the perception that an OS is more than the software running the machine--that the OS "includes" everything from applets like a calculator to a webbrowser--the bloat is nearly guaranteed. (Even naturally-lean Linux can start looking fatter when one factors in the size of an eyecandy-friendly GUI like GNOME or KDE, assorted applets, a Wine installation for legacy Windows apps, etc.)

Wilson sort of nods at the real role of an operating system when he writes:

It's worth remembering, too, that Windows is more than just an interface for running programs. It also manages your hardware—the hard drive and video card as well as peripherals like webcams and external memory devices. Even if Firefox or Chrome takes over application management someday soon, we'll still need something to handle all of that under-the-hood stuff. One intriguing option is a piece of software called HyperSpace that debuted in late 2007. HyperSpace is essentially a bare-bones OS that can fire up some of your computer's resources right when it boots, long before Windows has burped and sputtered awake from its coma. (The company that makes HyperSpace, Phoenix, is a major supplier of BIOS software, the code that runs immediately when you turn on your machine and takes attendance for all your hardware.) The current version of the product, which works on certain laptops—specifications here—loads in a few seconds and can get online, run Firefox, and boot a handful of other programs. These days, you can get a lot done with just that tiny amount of software. (If you're curious to try HyperSpace, you can demo it for free for 21 days. After that, running the software requires an annual fee.)

HyperSpace sounds interesting, but it's sort of cute, the way Mr. Wilson relegates what an operating system does to an "also," as if running the hard drive and allocating RAM to system processes are neato extras and not among the primary roles of an OS.

Wilson's article also raises the usual questions about whether cloud computing is a practical or sound idea. That could be another entire post (and might be), but suffice it to say that as spiffy as a browser-based word processor might be, one continues to marvel that those who promote the concept continue to ignore the fact that there are entire professions--law and medicine come to mind--where confidentiality and security of information are mandated by regulated, state-empowered ethics watchdogs (not to mention, in the case of medical information, Federal law). One wonders if any of these companies or writers have given any thought to whether they really want a confidential letter from an attorney or accountant or the results of a lab test to be written up on Google Chrome and kept on a Google server somewhere out there. But, again, that may be a post for another time.


Random Michelle K Monday, June 22, 2009 at 1:03:00 PM EDT  

Don't *even* get my started...

What makes it worse is that MS has the operating systems: XP, Vista, and soon Windows 7

and the Office Application suites: XP, 2003, and 2007

You wouldn't believe the number of times I'm told, "My Word XP isn't working" or "I don't like the new Office Vista"

It's an ugly ugly thing...

Nathan Monday, June 22, 2009 at 2:10:00 PM EDT  

I have no (intelligent) comment. I'm one of those who only knows the difference between "ooh, shiny" and "I'm gonna slap this thing into next Wednesday".


Carol Elaine Monday, June 22, 2009 at 3:55:00 PM EDT  

Wow. I knew I was a bit of a geek, but apparently I am Uber-Geek, because I am surprised that people don't know that MS Word is a word processing program (albeit a rather bloated one), not an OS.


(In all honesty, I'm probably one of the most dangerous of computer users - one who knows just enough to try things out for myself, thereby ensuring I will, at some point, totally fuck something up.)

Random Michelle K Monday, June 22, 2009 at 4:16:00 PM EDT  

Carol Elaine,

I don't mind users like you as long as you're willing to tell me you did something and it broke. That makes it (in theory) undoable.

Eric Monday, June 22, 2009 at 4:30:00 PM EDT  

In all honesty, I'm probably one of the most dangerous of computer users - one who knows just enough to try things out for myself, thereby ensuring I will, at some point, totally fuck something up.

Actually, that makes you a perfect candidate for Ubuntu. Just make sure you set up /usr on a separate partition. :-)

Dr. Phil (Physics) Monday, June 22, 2009 at 5:19:00 PM EDT  

I'm another kind of user from Hell. I know what an OS is and what an OS isn't -- and I continue to run a whole buncha legacy apps AND do my daily management from a command line prompt.

Don't you take my Office 95 Professional away from me! There's nothing wrong with it.

Dr. Phil

Eric Monday, June 22, 2009 at 7:36:00 PM EDT  

The command prompt is much maligned. Often it's the fastest, easiest way to do something.

The real problem with the command prompt isn't the command prompt, it's that computers currently require users to learn a foreign language to use it. If the cp could parse the user's native language, it would frequently be better than a GUI. But that's yet another blog post....

MWT Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 10:34:00 PM EDT  

Well, that's kind of what SQL was supposed to do - commands that look like English. Which it more or less does. Mostly.

The command prompt is the fastest and easiest way to do most things if the GUI alternative is clunky and crappy, the way Windows is. On a Mac, you mostly don't need a command prompt at all.

Also, remember that Windows didn't start out as an OS at all, and I really wish they'd not tried to turn it into one.

As for the original post: it looks very much like we're headed back in the direction of dumb terminalhood, only with pretty pictures. ;)

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