Can One OS Rule Them All?

Is there still a chance that one OS could rule them all?

At a recent Windows User Group meeting, I was astounded to hear the speaker talk about the Internet of Things in conjunction with Windows 10. When I asked him if that meant my fridge would reboot every Patch Tuesday, he laughed it off. But I wasn’t joking. Far from it. Is Microsoft still going down the route of “one OS to rule them all”? More importantly, if it is, then is there any sense in adopting this approach?

It seems incomprehensible for a company of Microsoft’s size and experience to appear to have missed the whole point. The IT industry acknowledges that there isn’t one OS to rule them all, and there likely never will be. It seems that the unification of the NT platform across business and consumer devices early in the new millennium gave Microsoft a sense of possibility that could never be realized. Didn’t it famously fail at unifying the Windows OS as a delivery platform across different form factors with Windows 8.x?

Microsoft has come along well with its worldview recently, opening itself up to the market possibilities of running software on other platforms and embracing emerging disruptive technologies such as Docker. Office Online continues to gain traction. Microsoft’s Nano Server represents a significant step forward, moving from the traditional Windows back-end platform toward something more appropriate to areas of the modern IT world. Keeping this in mind, why is there still talk of putting Windows 10 out to desktops, laptops, tablets, game consoles, microdevices such as the Raspberry Pi, and even smaller-footprint devices like those found in the envisaged “Internet of Things”?

It’s easy compare this with the world of transportation. We had horses long before we had cars, yet both achieved the same end: travel from point to point. Why, then, with the advent of motorized transport, did we not put together a consistent user interface for both of these? It just so happens that putting reins on a car or a steering wheel on a horse didn’t make any sense when it came to interaction with the underlying device/creature.

Tablets and phones are one-handed devices that users interact with by poking, sliding, and pinching. Desktop computers and laptops are generally used in a more precise fashion, with a keyboard and a mouse. One is a consumption device, while the other is a productivity device, as it were. There’s a subset of crossover, but it’s not great. If you apply the different controls to the other devices, what you get is at best a compromise, and that doesn’t work well for users. They want the best tool for the job—because they want to get the job done as quickly and as efficiently as possible. You might drive a car with reins if you had no other choice, but ideally, you’d like a steering wheel.

Apple has so far kept iOS for its horses and OS X for its cars, moving them a bit closer together over time in terms of look but maintaining the distinction with regard to utilization. The feel of the device adapts itself to the form factor. The worry for Microsoft should be that Apple will bite into its enterprise market share as Microsoft repeats the mistake of pushing for a single interface across devices, regardless of whether it makes sense. Did it learn nothing from the early days of WinCE, when it tried to make the OS work with a Start Menu? Microsoft finally accepted that mobile devices do not work well with a Start Menu–based UI, but by then, it had lost any traction it may have had to its competitors. Will Microsoft’s distraction as it pushes “one OS” allow Apple to finally break into the one market—enterprise—in which Microsoft is incumbent? Could Apple’s alliance with IBM make this likelier to happen?

Microsoft has made progress in the days since Steve Ballmer. At that time, the company appeared to lose not only focus but the respect of the IT community. A well-known adage applies here: “Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.” Given the current slant from its employees at user groups and community events, Microsoft seems in danger of forgetting the terrible reception afforded Windows 8; it is at risk of merely treading the same path with Windows 10.

In my opinion, there is a much greater chance that users will use Windows applications on all devices than that they will ever use the Windows operating system on them all. Application virtualization, coupled with application refactoring technology (such as that from Reddo, Capriza, or StarMobile), can extend the reach of Windows applications running on remote Windows hosts to devices that are simply not suitable for the Windows OS, adapting the applications intuitively for touch interfaces and smaller form factors. That is where Microsoft should be concentrating, rather than obsessing about the possibilities of putting a Windows 10 front end on an electric meter or a lightbulb. Would you really want your oven to blue-screen prior to a dinner party, or your lawnmower to need twenty patches applied before you can cut the grass? As Sauron found out, to his dismay, there really isn’t any way to have one technology to rule all the rest.

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