The case for smaller, simpler, faster operating systems

Call me a shameless optimist, but I can't shake the feeling that the operating system arms race may finally be over. After countless generations of new-and-improved OSs that consumed every iota of additional performance built into ever-faster hardware, I think we're finally seeing a tiny light at end of a tunnel many of us thought would continue forever.

Newer, but not better

We've all had this experience: We replace a three-year-old computer running an older version of an operating system with something supposedly light years ahead of the old machine. By the specs, the processor is twice as fast and has twice as many cores. Memory is an order of magnitude larger and faster. Storage, video, network, wireless and other components are similarly rocket-powered compared to the old stuff. If we believe the numbers, our new machine should blow our suddenly obsolete one of the water.

If only we could be so lucky. After we're done setting it up, the expected quantum improvement in productivity never materializes. We click…and wait.

Sure, we all seem to have a honeymoon period during which our spanking new babies can do no wrong. We marvel at the slick interface and cool new features, but before long we're back to being frustrated by the same old pokey performance. Error messages and other unexplained popups don't help, either.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)"Featuritis" runs rampant

Why is this so? Because piles of features and eye candy somehow became more important to developers than outright performance and reliability. They spent too much time spiffing up the front end and not enough time making the back end robust and efficient. Even various flavors of desktop Linux, long used by hobbyists to extract more life from older hardware, have fallen prey to featuritis and bloat.

As Microsoft and Apple put the finishing touches on Windows 7 and Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard), respectively, I think we're finally starting to see a flicker of recognition that consumers want function over form. Unlike Vista -- which, depending on your perspective, has been rightly or wrongly savaged for substandard performance on anything less than leading-edge hardware -- Windows 7 is a leaner beast that promises to work well on netbooks and other pedestrian hardware. Its simplified interface consolidates functions and won't force my mother-in-law on half-day adventures to update her printer driver.

After years of trying to convince us that we need to pay more attention to our operating system, vendors are finally pulling back on the rhetoric. We don't really care about the OS because we don't actually use it to get anything done. It's a utility, one that only draws attention to itself when it breaks. The rest of the time, we're content to ignore its very existence. What matters to users are the applications that let us get work done, not the underpinnings that make it all possible.

Please let me work

A personal case in point: As I'm writing this column, my computer is helpfully suggesting that my thumb drive would work faster if I plugged it into a USB 2.0-compliant port. As far as I can tell, it's a USB 2.0-compliant drive, and my laptop has only USB 2.0-compliant ports, so why is this error message taking over my machine every ten minutes? I suppose I could root around until I find a settings panel or dialog box that allows me to turn off such notifications permanently, but I've got a deadline, and I'm already annoyed by software that assumes I care. I don't. I just want it to work.

As I stare at my now-popup-filled screen, I notice that my windows have a lovely translucence to them. They open and close with an animated flourish that my kids find endlessly entertaining. The gadgets to the side look slick and impressive...when they're not spontaneously crashing. I look at my calendar and realize it's been six months since my last full-on OS refresh. Time to pull out the master DVDs and repeat the process.

With this frustrating waste of time in mind, here's my wish list for Microsoft, Apple and anyone else who's working on operating systems for use by regular folks like me:

• Forget the eye candy. I like drop-shadowed, translucent windows and animated transitions as much as anyone, but not when every mouse click brings my hardware to its knees.

• Shrink the landscape. Why must there be six ways to change a printer? Why must I dig through multiple windows and panels to find what I need? Stick all settings in the same place to minimize wandering time and allow me to get back to work more quickly.

• Be realistic about minimum hardware requirements. Being able to install something on last year's hardware and actually wanting to live with it are two very different things. If you oversell the product, I can guarantee you I'm switching OS vendors for my next machine.

• Make it self-maintaining. I shouldn't have to reinstall my OS every six months. Why must system performance degrade over time?

• Leverage your mobility learnings. Handheld devices are, for the most part, instant-on and fairly straightforward to use. There's no reason why desktops, laptops, and netbooks can't work the same way.

The rise of the netbook and other form factors is driving a fairly substantial re-think in terms of how we use computers and what we expect out of them. We no longer shoot for all-encompassing capability, and instead want simpler devices that do the job quickly and efficiently. We don't want to wait after every keypress or mouse activity, and we don't want to be confused, either.

Simple is the new goal, and an OS that strips out needless complexity, stays out of the way and lets users get their work done uninterrupted represents the new state of the art.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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