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.
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.
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
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
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.