Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Vista Blessing

Windows Vista is a blessing upon us all. A gift from Microsoft to humanity. I should know, since I don't use it - and hopefully never will. Well, at least not in any of it's current incarnations, I won't, not on a daily basis.

To conclude, by now, that Vista is not an unadulterated success, probably wouldn't stretch it too far. A disaster (for Microsoft), according to some, as unmitigated as they come. In the wee hours of a drunken night on town, even Steve Ballmer might admit to some of these assertions. Reluctantly, much diluted, but still.

In plain speak, Vista is too late, it's too little and the price is far too high - both in terms of cash money, hardware requirements and, well, the sheer burden of migrating my digital life, my habits and settings into this new environment.

In all fairness, Windows XP was and is quite decent. It does, after all, provide the majority of computer users with a huge selection of services, it is not too unfriendly, unstable or unreasonable. Most of the time it just works, more or less, despite loads and loads of well-publicized idiosyncrasies, security issues and plain bloat. Microsoft is not an incompetent bunch of fools. Over the years they have striven to meet a lot of very diverse requirements, and mostly they have succeeded.

I was never particularly well disposed towards Microsoft. Or the reverse, for that matter. I like my options, and in the department of operating systems, they are getting plentiful as of late. Apple is tempting me more and more with their slickness and style, while Ubuntu, given its open source nature, is nothing short of impressive in terms of coherence, versatility and, frankly, innovation.

But far more important, I'm getting seriously motivated to actually take the jump and detach myself from relying on any operating system, whatsoever.

And that is the blessing.

The thing is, operating systems are becoming a generic commodity. Somewhat like cars. Something we just use, regardless of brand, model or color. We may have our preferences, inclinations and favourites, but, by and large, the operating system just doesn't matter. It is not the focal point of our activities.

In truth, this has been the case for most people, most of the time. "Ordinary" people never quite cared for what happened beneath their gaming, spreadsheeting, e-mailing and browsing experience. The operating system is the default, a neccessary evil, not terribly more important than what kind of fuel the car is using.

But this is changing, and not quite like some would have it. The "Year of the Linux Desktop" might never come to pass, and a number of trends are pointing firmly in that direction:

The Cloud: we are moving online in droves. Not just technically inclined people, but everyone. And not even for our own personal productivity. We are calling out, meeting up, working with each other in venues far removed from the actual piece of hardware in front of us. Our stuff, the documents, pictures, e-mails, will increasingly move out there on a permanent basis. What is left in our physical vicinity will be some sort of local cache, containing what we need on the go. Google Apps and Google Gears is but a vague precursor of things to come. I'm not breaking any news here, I know, but I do think a lot of people are severely underestimating the impact and the timescale. Even at Google.

The Tools: We will still need an operating platform, a substrate, for animating our personal kit, something akin to Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, OS X or whatever. My guess is, personal virtualization will take off in the near future. The descendants of VMware, Virtual PC and Parallels will come to dominate the scene between the physical hardware and somewhere well into what we presently understand as operating systems. In turn, those will become smaller, possibly morphing into appliances. Migrating to faster, smaller or just different hardware will be a simple matter of copying one file, if even that. Backups will be a snap, too. And, since our data is already segregated for online consumation, what we need may not be terribly big and unwieldy. I imagine that I will be able to keep the lot, including essential files, virtual keychains, digital signatures and such, in one pocketable device. Like a USB flashstick, though preferably with a little something in the way of preventing unauthorized access.

The Gear: The hardware is changing, too. Getting smaller, unobtrusive, integrated. The mobile phones, media players, GPS, pocket harddisks, bluetooth, flash keys, the Nintendo DS, Wi-Fi ... well, you get the picture, for sure. Some call it personal area networks - which is too bland for my taste, but what the heck. The point is, I will carry it with me, and it with interface with whatever is around me. Including a fullblown desktop setting with large monitors, keyboards and pointing devices. Or a Tablet PC for the couch. Or a gaming console. Or my mobile phone. Or the car. The actual hardware will become conduits for my virtual environment, with only passing significance in itself.

I'm getting way ahead of myself here. Personally, for now, I'm taking small steps. Already, my e-mail resides out there, between GMail and my rented IMAP host. My bookmarking is with del.icio.us, all my documents reside on a pocket USB harddisk, and I'm starting to experiment with private, online version control repositories. Lately, I have taken to do all my professional work on a couple of VMWare images that I haul around as needed (FreeBSD, if you must know). Soon I will move most of the rest in there, as well. I'm very consciously aiming for my next Windows migration to be the very last, ever.

Then, wherever I lay my hat ...

So, does any of this spell the doom of Microsoft? Probably not, if you consider the width and depth of the software giants portfolio. They are, after all, the largest software company in the world, in a position comparable to the one held by IBM in the 1980's. I wouldn't be surprised if, say, 5 years from now, Microsoft were to open source large parts of Windows in a grand gesture of good intention. Needless to say, they will milk it for every scrap of publicity. And by then, of course, they would have secured themselves a nice corner of this new landscape, a rich source of revenue, what with shareholders and all. That Microsoft will not perish anytime soon.

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