The Looming OS Identity Crisis

by Paul Rubens

The gap between where desktop computing ends and mobile computing begins is becoming increasingly murkier as tablets make strides to cross the chasm. Not surprisingly, no two vendors demonstrate this more sharply than Microsoft vs. Apple.

On the evidence of the past few months you could be forgiven for thinking that many leading operating systems are going though something of an identity crisis: Their makers certainly don't seem to know who they are meant to appeal to or, in some cases, on what type of hardware they are meant to run.

Let's take a look at Microsoft. It has a very solid Server & Tools Business (STB) worth around $15 billion annually. But the time has come, apparently, for a change. "We are now ready to build on our success and move forward into the era of cloud computing," is how Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, put it in an email earlier this week.

So far as it's possible to discern that it means that although Microsoft Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is doing rather well selling server operating systems, server OSes are no longer where it's at. Cloud is the future. Who should Windows Server now be targeted at, then? It's not really clear.

What is clear though, is that Ballmer's pronouncement is also the cue for long-time Microsoft man Bob Muglia to leave his position as head of STB and quit the company. He may have been right for the old Windows Server product strategy, but not for the new one. Who will replace Muglia and articulate the new Windows Server strategy? Mmm. That's also not clear, as Microsoft have yet to find someone to carry out that particular role.

What's worrying for Microsoft's OS customers is that Muglia is just one of a number of Microsoft big cheeses who have decided to move on or have felt the business end of Ballmer's boot in recent months. Ray Ozzie, the man who was meant to replace Bill Gates and give the company an overall vision, was replaced in October, as was Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft's entertainment and devices unit in May, and Stephen Elop, business division head honcho, in September.

Microsoft may not quite know what the plan is for its server operating system business, but the company has got its mobile strategy sorted out, on the face of it at least. Having had a couple of years for it to sink in that its Windows Mobile was never going to succeed against competition from touchscreen OSes like Apple's iOS or Google's Android, the company launched the brand-new-from-the-ground-up Windows Phone 7 mobile OS in late 2010.

Now Apple has extended iOS, which was originally designed for its iPhone and iPod Touch products, to its popular iPad tablet. At CES in Las Vegas last week there was no shortage of companies demonstrating Android tablets (including devices running Google's tablet-oriented Android 3.0, Honeycomb). It seems pretty clear that cell phones and tablets need similar OSes.

So it's a little surprising, to say the least, that Microsoft also took the opportunity at CES to announce that Windows 8, due in 2012, would be capable or running on ARM-based processors, the low-power chips from vendors like Qualcomm and Nvidia that are popular in phones and tablets, but not in full-blown laptops or PCs.

The question you have to ask is "what's all that about?" Having finally figured out that it needed Windows Phone 7 because "normal" Windows doesn't work on a cell phone, Microsoft seems to think that in the future it will on some ARM-based tablet.

It turns out Microsoft is not alone in being unsure where desktop computing ends and mobile computing begins, and which OS design is best suited for which platform. Apple appears equally confused, but in the opposite way of Microsoft: It seems to be under the impression that mobile OSes should be run on desktop machines. An increasing number of elements from iOS are finding their way onto the latest version of OS X, and the Mac App Store -- an echo of iOS in itself -- has faced a huge amount of criticism since its launch for imitating iOS's user interface. Ubuntu is confused too: Late last year, Mark Shuttleworth, the Linux distro's founder, announced Ubuntu would be abandoning Gnome as its default user interface in favor of Unity, a UI originally designed for netbooks. Adding multitouch support for Unity would also be a priority for Ubuntu, he said at the time, but who wants touch screen on a desktop or laptop? Or is Shuttleworth planning to port Ubuntu to phones and tablets?

All in all there seems to be a great deal of confusion around what type of OS is best for what type of hardware. Unless that gets resolved quickly, don't be too surprised if your next cell phone or tablet comes with Windows Server.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Jan 11th 2011
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