Lifehacker: Does Your Computer’s Operating System Still Matter?

This is a discussion I’m honestly getting sick of. Two terms I’m tired of reading about are “cloud computing” and “netbooks.” “Cloud computing” is a term that comes from network drawings which show the Internet as a cloud, especially network drawings that show a data flow going to the Internet as a medium of transfer to another part of the network.

A netbook is essentially a device that is smaller than a laptop but larger than a handheld. The Asus Eee PC is an example of a netbook. These usually run Windows XP (because the hardware is a little bit short of Vista, which could say more about the hardware than it does about Vista but that’s a matter of perspective.) Typically these will have a 7-10 inch screen, a 4-16 GB hard drive, and maybe a Gig of RAM in the higher end configurations. These are designed to provide a small but capable device that can be carried around, giving some of the power of a laptop without all the weight. For work, I have a 15.4” Toshiba laptop, so I can definitely understand not having to lug the darn thing around. However, when I have to work on Excel spreadsheets or Visio drawings in a hotel room, I’m darn glad to have a 15.4” screen and Office installed rather than trying to use Zoho or Google docs.

I keep reading on tech blogs the concept of having no operating system on a computer, as everything moves into “the cloud.” Games will be played in “the cloud.” Office documents can be edited in “the cloud.” Email will be read and sent in “the cloud.” To a point, a lot of that already happens. I use Gmail heavily, although I prefer to download to Microsoft Outlook or Flexmail on my Pocket PC. Thanks to Gmail’s IMAP, I can do both, as well as get notified on my Blackberry when I get a new email.

I groan every time I read a blog post or tech news story about how “operating systems will become obsolete.” Honestly, I know that a lot of the tech press and many bloggers HATE Microsoft and it’s Windows flagship, but how can anybody who knows anything about how a computer operates think that one day we will have no operating systems? Perhaps I’m just an egghead and that’s more of an epistemological comment. I understand that what they’re actually trying to say is that one day it won’t matter if you use Windows, Mac OSX, or Linux, BSD, or blah, blah, blah.  That’s what they want to say.

Of course, it’s impossible to have no operating system running on a computer. What we think of today as an operating system is of a large collection of applications and utilities installed along with an operating system. The operating system is really the layer that runs behind the scenes pulling everything together. No matter how thin of a client you happen to be running, there will always be an operating system. Windows Calculator is NOT part of the operating system: it is a useful utility that is included with a package that comes with the operating system which we call Windows. iLife is not part of an operating system: it is a suite of applications that Apple ships with every new Mac.

I personally prefer what we call a “fat client.” I don’t see the “cloud” as being reliable or ubiquitous enough at this point to want to trust my operational capabilities to it. My organization’s webmail hasn’t been working for more than a week. I’m going to call the 1-800 number to find out when we can expect it to return.

I like having a large hard drive and a large monitor, but of course the trade-off is carrying it around with you. My answer to Lifehacker’s survey is that I will still need an operating system for the time being.


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