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The Operating System of the Future: Some Speculations

The most important piece of software on your computer is the operating system, or OS. From a user point of view, the most important function of an OS is that it provides the interface with which the user interacts. Behind the scenes, of course, an operating system carries out many additional functions. It recognizes devices attached to the computer and manages interactions with these. It communicates between applications and the processor. It maintains a directory of files. It manages resources such as fonts and system sounds. In short, the operating system is the sine qua non of computer software. Without it, nothing happens. 

Because of the importance of the OS, fundamental changes in operating systems have enormous consequences for computer users. In this article, we shall look at what we might expect from operating systems of the future. 

OS Wizardry

When operating systems made the leap from command-line interfaces to graphical user interfaces, many tasks that computer users routinely carried out, such as saving, copying, and deleting files, suddenly became much easier. Graphical user interfaces, or GUIs, are intuitive. They are as easy to use as real-life windows, file folders, and trash or recycle bins. The invention at Xerox PARC of the graphical user interface was thus a major step toward making computers accessible to ordinary people (the kind who don't know a logarithm from a log-on). 

In recent years, however, the standard GUI has begun to show signs of age. Hardware and software have become increasingly complex, and despite the heroic efforts of OS developers, the creators of such magnificent programs as Windows 95 and Mac OS 7, ordinary users are commonly overwhelmed by the technical problems that they encounter. Installing a new piece of hardware, for example, can be a nightmare requiring an advanced degree in geek studies, and such a degree is also needed to figure out which files on a system are no longer needed or what file formats particular platforms and devices support. (A typical personal computer user doesn't care, for example, whether a sound file is in the .au, .aiff, .wav, or .mp2 formats. He or she simply wants to be able to play it. Period.) 

Enter the wizard. A wizard is simply a piece of software that turns an otherwise complicated task into an automated, step-by-step procedure. Windows 95 contains excellent wizards for installing and uninstalling software and hardware. In the future, expect to see more wizards incorporated into operating systems, including ones that will automatically clean up systems and delete unnecessary files, ones that will further simplify installation of hardware and software, ones that will give reports on what a system or device can or cannot do, and ones that will ask you what you want to do today, look at the software that you have installed, and suggest programs or boilerplate documents for accomplishing this task. 

Platform Independence

In many ways, the World Wide Web has spoiled people. Regular surfers have grown used to the Web's platform independence. They rarely have to think about whether the remote server that they are accessing is a UNIX, IBM, Macintosh, NeXT, or other platform. They simply point and click and, presto, a file appears. Not so on the desktop. These days, transferring files between platforms can still be daunting for the nontechnically minded. In the future, expect to see operating systems that can recognize non-native file formats and perform automatic translation into a format supported by the native platform. 

The Network User Interface, or NUI

In 1997, Microsoft ran afoul of the Justice Department because it was requiring computer manufacturers who shipped Windows 95 with their systems to ship Internet Explorer as well. Microsoft argued that Win 95 and Explorer were essentially the same product. The Justice Department, believing Microsoft's practice to be monopolistic, saw otherwise, but there is this much truth, a least, in Microsoft's position: in the future, it is likely that Web browser features will be incorporated into the OS itself. All the major developers of operating systems for PCs, network computers, and workstations, including Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and Sun, are hard at work integrating the two. Microsoft's strategy, which it calls the Active Desktop, is to use a browser metaphor for searching hard drives as well as for surfing the Net. Whatever the outcome of the legal battle, expect, in the future, for HTML with Java and Active X controls to become the de facto file standard on the desktop and for applications and their associated documents to be called from within these HTML files. In short, the Network User Interface, or NUI, will replace the Graphical User Interface, or GUI. In the future, one will be able to access the Web directly from the OS without first starting a separate Web browser. 

Operating Systems as Knowledge Navigators

Years ago, then-Apple CEO John Sculley unveiled his dream for the computer of the future, which he called the Knowledge Navigator. The Apple Knowledge Navigator promotional video showed a professor preparing for class by speaking to a computer and telling it what information to gather for him from the resources of the world. Sounds a lot like the World Wide Web, doesn't it? There were, however, significant differences between Sculley's Knowledge Navigator and the Web as we know it today. Two of the most important were that the professor interacted with his computer simply by speaking to it and that the computer acted as an intelligent agent, interpreting the professor's wishes and seeking on the worldwide network to fulfill them. While simple voice recognition capabilities exist today, we are far away from being able to incorporate into an operating system the ability to deal reliably with the infinite possibilities of spoken input. In other words, we are many, many years away from having operating systems that can respond to such spoken commands as "Computer, find some good maps of deforestation in Brazil from 1982 through 1999 and deliver those to my e-mail. Oh, and any related charts or graphs. I need these for a lecture this afternoon. Do them up as PowerPoint slides, please." Increasingly, however, operating systems will become intelligent enough to act as agents, or proxies, for us on networks, acting as any good secretary does to learn our habits and interests and to keep us updated. 

The Operating System as Universal Media Butler

As various kinds of media that were formerly separate, such as mail, television, radio, and telephony, converge on the desktop, expect operating systems to evolve to deal with these seamlessly. Operating systems in the future will be as comfortable handling television programs, radio signals, music, telephone calls, and mail of all kinds (text, voice, and video) as today's operating systems are with data files. Expect all these functions to be merged with operating systems in the near future. 

The Ideal OS

The ideal OS is one that we never have to think about, an obedient Victorian-era servant who knows our wishes better than we do, takes care of all the petty details,  never demands anything of us, and recedes transparently into the background except when called upon. In recent years, we've made great progress toward that goal. Wizards, platform-independent file handling, network access, intelligent agents, and multimedia capabilities will bring the OS of the future closer to that ideal. 
Questions for Discussion and Review 

The following questions are based on the preceding text. Clicking on a question will take you to the place in the text where the question is discussed. To return to these questions, simply click the "Back" button in your browser. 

1. Why do wizards become increasingly important as operating systems become more complex? 

2. What is platform independence? What effect has the World Wide Web had on user expectations for platform independence? 

3. What is a Network User Interface, and how does it differ from a graphical user interface? 

4. How will operating systems of the future help computers to become more like Knowledge Navigators? 

5. How will operating systems change to accommodate the convergence of media on the desktop? 


 EMCParadigm Publishing