The death of the OS (Part 1)

With the successful introduction of mobile devices into the enterprise, apps have slowly been taking the place of the operating system in driving usage and creating the user experience. Apps are supplanting and moving the focus off the OS as the key user experience. This hasn’t always been true. In Part 1, we look at the symptoms contributing to the decline of the OS. A second installment will look at the future of computing and the role of the OS and apps.

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Apps are the new engine powering the user experience


In 1995, the Microsoft operating system (OS) Windows 3.1 was King on PCs and the heir apparent, Win 95, was launched to take the PC crown. It appealed to both business and the exploding consumer market with a vastly improved user experience.

At that time, Windows was the dominant, heck, the only relevant computing OS with approximately 90 percent market share (Mac was at 10 percent) for both business and the booming personal PC space. Laptops were taking over the business world as their capabilities started to match the desktop, and desktops became de rigeur in households going from 20 percent household penetration in 1990 to 50 percent in 1998 (Source: Technology Futures, Inc..

It seemed like the reign of the PC would last forever, even as smartphones were introduced into the business world and Blackberry became its favored Prince. That is, until 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone and iOS, making it easier to play games, music and oh, yeah — get mobile email too. With the introduction of Apple’s iOS, the emphasis on the user experience slowly began its march from the OS to the apps — which continues today.

PC shipments continue to decline, almost 10 percent in 2015 from the previous year (Source: Gartner, Inc.) as many users migrate to more convenient, easier-to-use mobile devices focused on apps. The focus on apps will gain momentum, as the OS for both PCs and handheld mobile devices continues to merge in both appearance and functionality, and as cross-platform apps that can be developed and run on any computing form factor.

Twenty years ago, a new OS was actually an event to celebrate. Rising from the primordial swamp of the text-based command line interface, the modern day graphical user interface (GUI) allowed non-technical people to compute. Applications (what were called “programs” at the time) could be run by anyone and what was once used solely in business (spreadsheets for accountants, word processors for writers) found a market in students, day extenders and families using desktop publishing for their holiday newsletter.

Access to the Internet only fueled the fire as PC adoption grew. Home computing became more complex, adding peripherals like printers, scanners and then networking components. The developments in the OS that we take for granted today allowed anyone to manage their home IT systems.

Fast forward to today, when non-business users prefer smartphones or tablets for many of the past core PC uses, Internet-based computing, web browsers and email, for example. This has led to a decline in PC sales, because PCs are now largely used for niche needs like desktop publishing, music recording or video editing.

Where once kids used a PC, they have a smartphone or tablet. OS developments like “plug ‘n play,” — pioneered by Microsoft — have reduced the need for owners to rely on the UX of their OS to make things happen: it just works. Even on mobile devices where the UX is tightly aligned with the apps from the user perspective, the OS is just there to support the apps and once clicked, no one thinks about what those apps are running on.

In part 2, we will look at the new paradigm of the mobile OS and how apps are defining the future of the mobile experience.

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