As we see what is happening with Windows 8 and Metro, I am coming to the conclusion that the answer to this question is “no.” We may be reaching the point where the desktop OS is no longer important, eclipsed by the developments of the browser and ironically a victim of better integration of the Web by Microsoft and others.
My prediction is that Windows 8 will become the OS/2 of the modern era: an OS that is elegant but instantly made obsolete by events, designed for the wrong chip (in the case of Windows 8, the mobile ARM CPUs) and based on a cellphone design ethos that no one could care less about. Yeah, but it has a great new set of APIs!
It wasn’t all that long ago that Internet Explorer became almost indistinguishable from Windows Explorer. And with the rise of Chromebooks and how much of our time is spent online, the days of the particular desktop OS is almost irrelevant now. Who really cares what OS we run?
Remember when the desktop OS did things like keep track of directories, protect us from viruses (and Windows still doesn’t really do that all that well), make copies of files to removable media, and handle printing? Yes, I know I still can’t print my Web pages out with any kind of fidelity, and if I have an iPad, printing is almost an afterthought. But is that the browser’s fault or my OS?
Now that you can get gigabytes of free file storage in the cloud (thanks Mozy!), do you really care what is on your hard drive? Well, some of us dinosaurs (and I count myself among them) still cling to our hard drives but soon they will be totems from another era, much the way many of you look upon 5 inch floppy disks, or even 8 inch ones if you can recall back that far. Wow, we could carry an entire 360 kB of something around with us! (Of course, we didn’t have mp3s or videos either, but still.) And all this cloud storage is happening as hard drives are getting so cheap that they will be giving them away in cereal boxes soon: a 2 TB drive can be had for less than $50.
Meanwhile, Adobe has big plans for Flash, where it will take over the kinds of OS-like services that I mentioned above (ditto on the protect us from malware issue too, at least so far). And Google is trying mightily to rejigger HTML with its Dart Web programming language. And VMware has a new version of its View too, which is probably the OS that I really will end up spending most of my time with going forward. Whatever comes of these efforts, it almost doesn’t matter whether we are running Windows or Mac or Linux. Because we don’t need them anymore for our online lives.
Now stop and reconsider that last paragraph. Whom have we trusted for the next OS? It isn’t Microsoft, and it isn’t Apple. It is a bunch of folks from the valley that have never built an OS before (well, give Google half credit). Think about that for a moment.
Back at the dawn of the computing era in the 1980s we all wrote dBase apps (and saved them on those darn floppies too). Then we moved up to use Lotus Notes, before the Web took root. Then we branched out in a dozen different directions, using all sorts of programming languages that used HTTP protocols. That was the beginning of the end for the desktop OS.
Now we’ll still have desktops of one sort or another. And yes, Windows isn’t going away, much as Microsoft is determined to pry every last copy of XP from our cold, shaking hands. But when Adobe, Google and VMware all get done with their stuff, it won’t matter what will be running on our desktops. If we even have them around much longer.