Natural Selection: evolution of the modern desktop

Imagine a desktop OS that is so thin that you could barely even see it. Most of the time, you aren’t even aware of it. There is nothing to install, nothing to update, nothing to [mis]configure, and so nothing to crash.

Nothing. That is what i want from my next OS.

“NothingOS” is the name i gave to a concept that has been brewing in my mind for quite some time now. It’s based on the idea that the more things your OS can do, the more can go wrong. So start with nothing, and let me add just what i want, what i need. This idea relates to an article i wrote recently that talks about the dilemma that Windows 2000 Pro users now face ever since Microsoft pulled the plug on their favorite OS. In case you missed it, I asked important questions like “what would my computer say if..” and “what where they thinking when..” However, i also questioned whether or not most users wanted (myself included), or needed all the frills of an OS like XP.

But even if i had an answer to the previous question, the problem still remains:

Why should i upgrade to any operating system that will likely no longer exist in 2-3 years – which will inevitably result in my having to go through this whole process all over again. Isn’t there, or couldn’t there be, a better solution? I was convinced that the answers where out there, and that they were all web based. Web based email, photo albums, even television, web based everything.

Nothing. That is what i want from my next OS. And by nothing i mean everything.

Then i read an article by Jason Kottke that really inspired me. He basically laid down much of what i was thinking and more. He talks about “how the Web as a platform might play out”. With references to how Google, Yahoo, and a few others are slowly positioning themselves to offer what Jason calls “an operating system based on the Web” or “WebOS”.

Kottke envisions 3 main parts to this system:

  1. The Web browser – Firefox, Safari, or IE
  2. Web applications – like Gmail, Flickr, and Bloglines
  3. Local Web server – capable of running locally installed Web applications (when your offline)

What i find particularly interesting is the importance of caching that he and others refer to, something which i hadn’t thought of. When thinking about an OS that is nothing but a loosely organized group of web based applications, the most obvious risk to me seemed to be the inherent dependencies on the internet, on being connected. If your computer goes offline, would it be rendered useless until you get connected again (something like a black screen with a single blinking cursor), or will it still be capable of performing to users expectations. Caching seems to solve this problem. Sure the data is no longer live, and you may not be able to receive the most recent email or text message, but at least you could write a draft, read, edit and go on being productive in relatively the same way that any other user with a traditional desktop OS and without an internet connection might.

Security also becomes a serious concern here. But then again, any internet activity carries with it similar risks. I must admit, i was very skeptical when i first heard that Google had released a desktop search application that would go through all your files and serve up directed ads specifically chosen based on your interests. At the time, this seemed to me like an invasion of privacy. But many people tried it out, and over time a certain amount of trust is built up so that most people aren’t really worried about it anymore.

Kottke describes many of the advantages to having a web based OS, including multiplatform compatibility, and developers being able to share the same code base. But i would add that a huge benefit would be the shift away from a system where users are responsible for maintaining the software they run regularly on their desktops. Web apps like Flickr and Gmail just work. They are simple, intuitive and best of all.. fully maintained on the server side instead of by clients. All you have to do is log in to your Gmail account and if Google decided to update the software for whatever reason (usability or security), everything is already setup for you. Once you get over the initial, “something feels a little different today..” – you’d realize that they must have made some minor changes to the system and probably forget about it shortly afterwards.

Users don’t want to have to worry about compatibility, what version of OS they are running, or whether they have applied the most recent security patch. I think that should be the responsibility of the software providers. Similarly, software developers, like the creators of Flickr and Gmail, should not have to worry about a users’ personal data and whether a user will consider something to be sensitive info or not. That should be the responsibility of the user, because clearly only they could really know the answer to this. Ironically, the exact opposite seems to have happened over the last few years. Users spend more and more time regularly maintaining all their softwares (and let’s not forget the actual OS as well), while software companies are preoccupied with trying to create applications that don’t introduce any new vulnerabilities, etc.

To solve these concerns, many of them tied to the issues surrounding the security of sensitive data stored on an internet based operating system, i think there needs to be a role reversal of sorts. People must adapt their habits to suit this new environment (Kottke’s WebOS), and not the other way around. When programmers have to worry about whether their awesome idea will have security implications, well that seriously compromises innovation and disturbs the creative process as a whole. A much more efficient approach, in my opinion, would be to teach users how to keep their data safe. It this really so hard?

For example, imagine a world where anyone can walk up to any device connected to the internet and gain access to all the tools they need. Right away, that means that i could theoretically walk right up to your computer and start using it as my own. Now some might say, that even this simple scenario (we’re not even talking about an internet related threat here), represents a security concern because other people will be on your computer and it might have some personal stuff on it. My answer to these people would be, “so make sure you don’t keep anything personal on your machine”.

Step 1: Figure out what is sensitive information (it’s probably less files than you would think), and get it off your computer. Put it all on a memory stick or something.

Remember, that a web based operating system requires no software be installed, and so as long as you’ve got internet you’re good to go. The computer is more of a terminal, just a shell, used to connect, nothing more. People may have machines at home, that they use most often – but who is to say if they will still be storing their sensitive data on it (if they don’t even store their main softwares on it anymore). I wouldn’t be surprised if in 3-5 years, we were all willingly uploading our most sensitive data onto the internet, to some type of encrypted storage account held by, lets say, the bank. Just like it is considered safer to keep all you money in the bank than at home, in the future, it might be safer to keep all your sensitive data off your personal computer and in the bank.

Step 2: Figure out what gives your computer personality (desktop backgrounds, skins, and themes). Put it all on a memory stick.

If i were living in this type of future, i would surely have a fat memory stick full of all the cool things that make me feel comfortable while i am at the computer. i imagine you could then just walk up to any machine and “inject” it with your personal touch (just by attaching the memory stick). This way, wherever you go, you always have everything you need, customized the way you like it.

Personality on a stick (including sensitive data) running on NothingOS (nothing to worry about) – all you’ll ever need.

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