Are operating systems doomed?

The new philosophy of application development is making the traditional OS irrelevant, but what are the implications for enterprise IT?

Google's Chrome browser officially left beta earlier this month. But if the usage statistics are any indication, you're probably not using Chrome as your default browser, so there's a good chance that you haven't gotten around to downloading the final-release version.

Not to worry, though: If you installed the beta you're running Version 1.0 already. (I'll wait while you go and check.)

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Chrome is just one example of the new philosophy of application development that's taking hold, one that could change the very nature of IT as we understand it. At the heart of the philosophy is a simple idea: Apps are everything. The OS is irrelevant.

Users, not administrators
Chrome installation and update process flies in the face of traditional, OS-based software management. It's so freewheeling, in fact, that it's caused some alarm among the IT security community.

For starters, Chrome doesn't install into the regular system applications folder. Instead, it plants itself in the user's home directory. That way, users don't need administrative privileges to install it.

What's more, Chrome installs a background service, the Google Updater, which silently checks for new application patches while you work. If it finds any, it downloads and installs them automatically, without notifying you of what it's doing. There isn't any .exe file to download, nothing to double-click.

There's a certain logic to this. A fully patched browser is the best defense against malware and other Web-based attacks. Instead of teaching every Web-surfing granny how to maintain her applications with the latest patches, Google will simply take care of it for her.

In enterprise IT environments, however -- where a more ordered command-and-control structure is the norm -- Chrome's installation and update procedures have significant implications. And Chrome is just one of the new breed of applications that have begun quietly subverting not just traditional IT roles, but operating system roles as well.

One UI to rule them all
Take Adobe AIR, for example. The AIR platform uses not only a custom installer, but also a custom downloader widget that's different from the normal browser download window. Right away the user is reminded that this is not your typical OS-based install procedure, and these are not your typical apps.

When you launch an AIR application you don't see the menus, buttons, and other widgets that you're used to from other desktop software. Instead, the UI is built using Flash, HTML, and other technologies borrowed from the Web. Much has been said about how easy this makes it for developers to build rich, Internet-enabled applications; but there are implications for the consumers of those apps, too.

In 1987, Apple published its first Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, to help ensure that Mac OS users would benefit from a more or less consistent look and feel. It's a practice the company continues to this day, and Microsoft has followed suit.

But AIR apps don't care about any of that. An AIR app has the look and feel that its designers want it to have -- nothing more and nothing less. By definition, AIR apps are OS-neutral applications -- they exist beyond the sovereignty of Apple, Microsoft, or any other OS vendor. With an AIR app, you see the exact same UI whether you're running Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux. Human Interface Guidelines be damned; the OS doesn't get a say.

Hostile territory?
This isn't coincidence, and it isn't just expedient. Let's look at Chrome again. So far, Chrome is available only for Windows, but a Chrome browser window looks nothing like an ordinary Windows application. There's no icon or application name at the top of the window. There is no pull-down menu bar. Instead, the window has tabs. This is not Microsoft's vision of the desktop experience. It's Google's.

And that's just the Chrome window itself. Because what does Google picture inside that window? It sees applications -- applications that require no download, no OS installer, no patches, and no upgrades. Inside that window is Google's world; no OS vendors need apply. The Chrome installer is just an extension of this same world view, crossed over from the browser onto the desktop.

No wonder a lot of large, traditional software companies are getting nervous. "A variety of technology companies have begun to use the browser and to view the browser as a means to progress their own business, as opposed to create an ecosystem," says Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz. "The browser is hostile territory."

Don't be fooled, though. He's not worried about Sun's Solaris OS, which chiefly runs on servers. No, Schwartz's worry is that the browser and platforms like AIR might steal thunder away from Java, the original bugbear of OS vendors everywhere. Sun has been trying to push application development out from under the wings of the major desktop OS vendors for years.

Sun's recently launched JavaFX initiative is an attempt to use Java technology to do the very same kinds of things that Adobe and Google want to do. In fact, according to Jeet Kaul, Sun's senior vice president of Java engineering, "You can build a media player, run it in a browser, then you can simply drag it out of your browser onto your desktop, and it becomes a desktop application automatically. It's the same code, the same application."

The one thing it doesn't become, however, is a Windows or a Mac OS X application.

The new face of IT
If these trends continue, the effects of this new philosophy of application development will be far-reaching and profound. For software developers, it could finally free application design and delivery from the grip of Microsoft and other OS vendors. For consumers, it could usher in a new era of computing that shatters the traditional paradigm of "fat client" PCs running big operating systems and monolithic binary applications, in favor of new types of devices and use modes.

For enterprise IT, however, the implications are less clear. Tight integration of the OS with applications and networked servers has long been a cornerstone of Microsoft's success in the enterprise. By giving users the power to install their own applications, by making updates and patches automatic, and by dispensing with traditional OS-based UIs, the new applications also loosen the grip of traditional IT governance and support.

The OS may fade into irrelevance sooner than we expect. The process has already started. The question is: Will we be ready?

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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