Thursday, 15 August 2013

TECHNOLOGY: Contemporary operating systems. The horror.

Where lays the thin line that separates pursuit for innovation from nonsense? Most people would agree that competition propels development and in most cases is good for the human race. Competition usually means that one has to provide better “something” than someone else provides. But there are cases in which we see more cons than pros. And fragmentation of computer / mobile devices operating systems is one of those bad things. 

The PC sector is actually not that terrible. We have the Windows family, the Mac OS family, and a vast breed of Linux choices. Those are the basics and the rest is a real niche. Up to the latest version (8 / 8.1) Windows was pretty much a well-integrated OS, with evolutionary rather that revolutionary approach. While there were many changes “under the bonnet”, Windows since the 98 edition was looking and behaving more or less the same. Same GUI, installation methods and event handling, meant that, while certain features were being added, a user could use the same programs (renamed to “applications”) over all those years. 
That was all the beauty of Windows – simplicity. We were clicking icons, ticking boxes, pressing buttons. With the new era of tablets (especially with capacitive touch screens) Windows changed a bit – it gained the “Metro” GUI which is supposed to make the whole system more tablet / touch friendly. And in some cases it does, but in many other it is just a broken promise. A promise that you can have the usability of the good old Windows and the super trendy touch experience of modern mobile devices. Well, so far you cannot really. The Metro GUI requires applications to be specially optimized and a great deal of them just isn’t, and never will. Imagine Photoshop, AutoCAD or any other engineering / development software to be optimized for “touch”. The screen would need to be 32 inches in diagonal – try to fit that in your hand bag! 

But still – Windows is not so bad – the latest incarnation handles most of the existing apps just fine without any problems. Pretty same goes for Mac OS – the GUI evolves and new features are added but so far without any groundbreaking gimmicks. 

All of that is very good as people using computers professionally don’t really like to learn to find their way around with every system upgrade. 

Linux is a bit different – there are many version and editions. Some paid, some free. Some with a fancy GUI and some stripped down to a minimum for niche applications. But let’s be honest – Linux has been on the market for decades and is regularly used by a fraction of users compared to Windows and Mac OS. A lot of people perceive Linux to be more complicated. And while this is not completely true, the overall PR sustains this impression. 

Now the mobile market. This is different, because not many people look at mobile devices as at actually useful computers. Sure, most of us can’t imagine a day without a smartphone or a tablet, but we are not using them for designing cars or coding ERP systems. 

To me, a mobile OS is becoming a marketing tool more than anything else. 
What are the basic, practical functions of a smartphone?

  • Calling (principal, embedded)
  • SMS / MMS (principal, embedded)
  • E-mail (principal, embedded)
  • Calendar (principal, embedded)
  • Digital camera (principal, embedded)

Apart from that, everything else on a smartphone is bloatware or software that we installed on our own.
Bloatware is basically a marketing trick to make users think that they are getting some extra value for money. Who uses it? No idea, but sure is good to put a long list of preinstalled “super-cool-apps” in the promotional brochure.
And what we install is pure marketing. Don’t be fooled – perhaps 1% of the apps is really free and developed by pure enthusiasts that just want to spend time coding for “thank you”. The rest is in the AppStore and Android Market for $$$.

So we go to our local dealer to buy a new phone. So we are cool, hip, trendy, jazzy, glamorous and we fork out $600 for a supercharged, full HD smartphone. Just to immerse ourselves in the ocean filled with marketing sharks. Actually we got our leg bitten off the moment we paid for the device.
But we are happy, we can tweet, facebook (apparently it became a verb too), facechat and do a ton of other cool social stuff. Some of us can actually find some useful apps and improve their time management and organization, for example.

However there is a growing frustration within the society of app developers. People and companies who spend days, weeks and months on creating all the fun-bringing applications.
Their concern is fragmentation. 

Most of people doesn’t even know what this term means in relation to mobile OSes. Here is an analogy – if you travel a lot you probably know how it is to land on the other side of the Earth, just to find out that the electricity socket looks nothing like the one in your home. The only option is to get an adapter. Not a big issue but when you think about the numerous variations (UK, US, Swiss, German etc.) it may accumulate to an overall bigger problem.

With mobile operating systems it’s the same. Here are the most popular:

  • Android
  • iOS
  • Windows Phone
  • Windows Mobile
  • Winows CE
  • Bada
  • BlackBerry
  • Symbian

So those are 8 and they are completely cross incompatible. There other less known: recent Firefox OS, Ubuntu, Tizen and old HP’s WebOS. So this amounts to 12 different operating systems for mobile devices. 

Now, to be fair I should also say that active development does not concern all of them. Windows Mobile, WebOS and Symbian are actually dead. Windows CE is mostly used in standalone GPS navigation systems (in the consumer electronics sector at least). And still, we are left with 5 old players and 3 pretenders.

The worldwide market is dominated by two platforms (1Q2013) – Android (75%) and iOS (17,3%). Windows Phone came 3rd (3,2%) and BlackBerry 4th (2,9%). 
Apart from the market share it’s also good to understand the volume – Android: 162,1 Mio devices, iOS: 37,4 Mio devices. This means a massive momentum that will be ultra-hard to stop and will take years and billions of dollars to even shift a bit. 

There are many reasons for this situation but the main conclusion is – customers have decided. So why Samsung is struggling to convince us to its Bada and the new Tizen? Why is Firefox entering this arena with basically nothing new to show in its system? 

The only real chances I see are for Ubuntu. A brand well known in the PC world for the most user friendly Linux distribution. Their aim is to unify the experience on desktops, laptops and mobile devices. However we must remember that bringing the same GUI to all platforms doesn’t make them a unified ecosystem. The real deal is to be able to run the exact same application on a mobile phone, tablet or a PC. Add LTE internet connection and a well-protected cloud service and you have a winner. Unless you close the system and introduce harsh, unclear app verification process etc. Which is what Apple has been doing for some time now (= loosing market).  

Otherwise, why bother?

To summarize I can write only one thing. Don’t, unless your bringing a true revolution. Like the invention of the wheel or the space shuttle program. That kind.

P.S. One more thing – Windows RT. It is completely excluded from the article as it is the biggest flop since Windows Millennium. Or maybe even bigger as it involves custom build hardware too. Nonetheless, there is a gazillion of articles covering that OS so I just skipped it for your and my mental health.

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