Monday, March 4, 2013

Software Environments are the New Operating Systems

To fully take advantage of computers these days - especially the cloud-enhanced coordination of computers, tablets, and smart phones - you need to choose a software "environment". Many of us have done just that, and "live" in Evernote, or in Omnifocus, or DEVONthink Pro, Yojimbo, or Facebook (which is, under the hood, just another software). I myself "live" in The Hit List, a Mac to-do program.

All these software "environments" are fabulously open-ended. You can store vast amounts and types of data there, organize everything in myriad ways, and generally immerse to the point where you really do "live" there.

But you have to choose, because these environments aren't built to interact with each other. Developers want you hunkered down so completely that you'll never want to leave. So living in multiple software environments is like owning multiple houses; you'll face the endless frustration of discovering that a given book, cereal box, or sweater isn't close at hand.

Meanwhile, operating systems have become so meta that they hardly feel like environments at all. They've become transparent. So, in a sense, softwares like Evernote have assumed the role of the traditional operating system, and OS X, Windows, and Linux are transparent architecture with which most users hardly interact. They've lost their sexiness.

For one thing, the OSes have finally matured. I'm hardly curious about Mac OS 11 at all, because OS X does all I need. I wouldn't have said that in 1988, 1998, or 2008, but we're finally there. In fact, I really don't want new features on the OS level; they're distracting, a chore to learn, and often break my carefully polished work flow.

Really, major OS updates have mostly become burdens. They cost, they make us upgrade software (and, often, peripherals), and rarely give back much to compensate for those sacrifices. I'm more focused on the evolution of software environments; I have hardly any interest in - or patience for - OS updates anymore.

One hallmark of software environments is interoperability. They work on most devices. So the lines dividing computer users are starting to be drawn less on the basis of chips and hardware, and more on software environments, which will continue to grow ever larger and more OS-like.

Already these environments offer spin-off apps for specific purposes (e.g. "Evernote Food"), and this completes the cycle. Software has become OS, and widgets, spin-offs and applets have become applications. Really, the transformation is nearly complete, though few seem to have noticed.


Richard Stanford said...

Insightful. Its interesting that OSs are also adding features like graceful handling of "full screen" applications at the right time to support this shift too.

Jim Leff said...

Yes. But I don't think they're aware of the full picture of the shift I'm describing. If they were, they'd fight it. It's not good, in the end, for Apple or Microsoft.

I'm not one to always be ready to holler "Steve Jobs would have done that differently!". But I think this sort of subtle tectonic erosion really is the sort of thing he'd have been a lot better at detecting than, say, Tim Cook, who doesn't strike me as someone with antenna for subtle tectonic evolution.

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