by Phillip Redman

The death of the OS (Part 2)

Oct 14, 2015

In Part 1, we looked at the rise of the OS in desktop and mobile computing and the key impact it has had on the user experience. Part 2 covers how mobile apps have stolen the focus of users away from the OS, and the implications of that on the future computing.

As the OS recedes further to the background on both traditional and mobile computing, the growth of smartphones and tablets is replacing the usage on those traditional devices. Though the OS is still important, especially on mobile devices where quick exchanges demand a special user interface, the changes and innovation of the OS has had less an impact on the user experience in the past few years.

First PCs and now the mobile OS

The focus continues to be on the app. Although Apple has been great about supporting new features on each new mobile OS version, and uptake is typically 50% just a month after a new release (after all it is a free upgrade too), most would say the past few years have brought about incremental progress in the area of the OS. The same with recent versions of Android, even though the hardware OEMs (Samsung, HTC, LG for example) have a freer opportunity to invest and differentiate with Google Android. For both platforms, the focus has been on apps. Mobile apps on handhelds and web and browser-based apps on PCs are pushing the need for a fancy UX and the OS, into the background. And the top PC computing OS developers, Apple and Microsoft, are leading the way in their next-generation products focused on mobility.

The next generation user experience: the App

While once there was a big division on the UX theory between the leading enterprise PC maker Microsoft and the (current) leading enterprise mobile device manufacturers, Apple, those differences are decreasing. Both agree that their customers will use a variety of device-types based on what apps they need to run. Though mobile devices currently outsell PCs by a wide margin, in the end, all PCs won’t disappear. Both Apple and Microsoft see that bringing the desktop and the mobile OS together makes it easier for users to go from one device to the next. With its Windows 10 release, Microsoft has done a great job adding features like Continuum, which supports a desktop experience on a mobile device that can also take advantage of co-authoring and collaboration, which was released in 2013.

Unlike the first attempt at merging desktop and mobile experiences with Windows 8, Win 10 creates a balance that can work on both touch-based handhelds and mouse-controlled computers with features that adapt to the form factor. And the focus on the “universal app” that can be developed for and work well across all platforms is getting steam in enterprises that don’t want to limit their apps to one device or pay to develop it across multiple. Apple has led the way with similar functionality with iCloud (and Apple Handoff) and although there are many similarities between Mac OS X and iOS 9 (iTunes, Safari, password keychains etc.), it still celebrates those differences too. However, what both Apple and Microsoft have in common is less focus on the OS and architecture and more about what users do with their computers, and of course, which app they use.

The OS is dead, long live the App

The OS will continue to recede in importance to the user even though underneath, everything runs on an OS. For example, Google’s success with Chromebook, is less about the UX on Chrome OS and more about the low-cost hardware and apps that it runs. This also starts pulling the power away from the big platform providers and more to the app developer. As the app experience becomes consistent across mobile platforms, it will lead to a more fickle buyer as the experience becomes a commodity. Platform providers will double-down over the next two years in terms of innovation investment but already there is concern by the OEMS on whether that investment will pay off. This commoditization will also further fuel BYOD as enterprises find any platform simpler to secure and manage.

For the next few years, this trend will continue as the app-focused experience dominates because what you can do with the computer is more important than legacy computer architectures, which get pushed more and more to the background. Where they belong.