The Disappearing Operating System

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace

Over time, intellectual property gets commoditized and competed away to become part of the background noise. It becomes the air we breathe and we forget all about it.

We’re reaching this right now with operating systems and the whole OS platform paradigm is going away. This is very weird for someone who grew up with Windows in the 90’s, Linux in the oo’s and MacOS in the 10’s. The OS used to be important. Defining. It was how you worked and what you did. It defined the box you lived in and how you thought about things.

I’m not talking about “everything is just a website now instead of an app”. I’m talking about how when you use an iPad that the computer itself “goes away”. There are no knobs and levers (keyboard & mouse) on an iPad. The distance between you and your work or content just falls away. The medium is the message.

I now have Windows 10, Mac and Linux machines I use all the time. Using them all for various productive things, there’s almost no difference between them. They all run the same software (everything from Bash to Dropbox to Spotify). They all have minor annoyances. And they’re all free. All three are even converging to look the same.

Now they’re all basically the same, and free, we can stop talking about them. It’s just no longer particularly important.

We don’t particularly talk about how much better my Honda is than your Toyota. Though both companies would have us believe they’re completely different vehicles that are key to our lives, they’re really wheeled metal boxes with essentially identical user interfaces.

And so it is, now, with operating systems. It’s all gone, all that investment and paradigmatic dogma. The OS is completely irrelevant to most people.

This wasn’t true only 12 or 18 months ago, but the gently declining quality of macOS and the ascent of Win10 along with its Linux subsystem has erased essentially all the differences. A Mac has the window buttons on the left, Windows has them on the right. That’s it. That’s the difference.

Picking an OS is no longer a meaningful thing to think about for most of us. If the OS is irrelevant and everything will work, give or take, then the hardware takes the place of software as the decision point. We’re now buying a blue computer or a red computer much as we buy a Honda or Toyota. A Dell and a Mac now have essentially identical hardware, it really comes down to which logo you prefer on the front. Or maybe you prefer the Dell carbon fiber box to the Apple aluminum box.

This is interesting since the choice will become (even more) about marketing than anything else. Your friends have a Mac so you buy one, or the shiny Dell is cheaper and you used a Dell last year. That’s the level of logic going forward.

The fly in the ointment

There is no MS Office for Linux. If there were, the picture would be complete. It’s the one thing missing that would remove the barrier to using Linux.

There is no doubt that Microsoft Office remains far better than its competitors, and is the way the majority of the world works. Individual pieces have some competition, for example Keynote is competitive with PowerPoint and in many ways better. But the suite together, and Excel in particular, remains head and shoulders above anything else available.

This is important since if the OS is irrelevant and we don’t care much about a Dell or an Apple logo on the box, MS Office is the only thing that keeps people away from, say, Ubuntu. I predict Office will come to Linux eventually.

Remember, when you buy a drill you’re really buying holes. Corporate America wants to buy “office machines” or “outlook machines”. The logo on the box isn’t very important. No more important than if your drill is built by DeWalt or Ryobi.


Desktop operating systems themselves aren’t super important in the context of phones. People spend more time on their phone and they change them faster. But the OS differences remain fairly stark and the switching costs high.

Despite Apple making iOS as confusing as they can with every release, it still remains roughly half as confusing as Android. This isn’t the case between Ubuntu, Windows 10 and macOS. Those three are about equally confusing.

If Android can get less bizarre and/or iOS continues to lose focus the meaningful difference will vanish like it has on the desktop. It took desktops roughly 20 years to erase all their meaningful differences. Phones are there in roughly a decade (iPhone shipped 10 years ago). Maybe watches or whatever comes next will take 5.

In Sum

Don’t think about operating systems ever again. It’s like travel agents – they didn’t just go away, we entirely change how we travelled and thought about travel.

The desk/laptop computer is changing and it isn’t just because of websites or the cloud. It’s a deeper shift toward computers becoming appliances and the battle moving on to new frontiers. It’s not about what fridge you buy but what you put in it.

The OS has been competed away. The next battle to compete away is for any existing key platforms on top. Things like office and search. Of course the real battle is for conversational interfaces like Alexa and other interesting new things. But here, I’m talking about existing key things on top of the OS. The OS is like your window on to the things you’re really doing, those are the things that are up for the chopping block.

Imagine the OS being an iceberg that’s almost melted and there are a bunch of penguins that are on top. The penguins have to start swimming soon.

What are the next monopolies that will get competed away? To repeat, it’s going to be office, search and the other key things like that  which we use every day.

For some reason I don’t understand, office remains without good competition. Open/LibreOffice is a real mess. Apple’s suite is okay for home users. Google Docs is useful for toddlers. I predict this will change and people will start to become serious about making an office suite that doesn’t suck. Because that’s what people are going to be buying a computer for. There are large material differences between these productivity suites, and as for Outlook, you have to squint very hard to find anything close.

As for search, it’s completely different. The delta between google and bing is about 95% marketing. But then we can say the same thing about Coca-Cola and Pepsi. The fragility is very different, Google is super dependent on a single revenue stream and that is less true of Microsoft every new day.

Pithy Predictions

  1. Windows will become “OfficeOS” in spirit if not name.
  2. Office365 will bundle Windows 10 Pro as part of your subscription.
  3. Office will come to Linux (without the Win10 pro stuff) like it came to Mac (basically 99% works but broken edges unless you use the ‘REAL’ office on windows).
  4. Google will be forced to build a real office suite.
  5. Search market share will remain roughly the same indefinitely.
  6. Apple will give up on macOS in spirit if not name since they have no real unique advantage over windows or ubuntu (this is what you’re seeing today).
  7. iOS will continue to get more confusing and Android will get less confusing, maybe crossing in 2019 or 2020 kind of timeframe.
  8. To defend the realm, and because they’ll be out of options, Apple will buy Android and/or Google from Alphabet – there won’t be a lot of options for them by that point. They may frame it as a strategic alliance, or something else that’s a merger in everything but name. As part of this process, the DoJ will force Apple to spin something out after complaints from Amazon and Microsoft.
Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes