Home' Technology Review : September October 2009 Contents FEATURE STORY 89
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pied once again with control of the OS, Microsoft missed the sud-
den, spectacular rise of search engines. When Google's popularity
persisted, Microsoft was unable to do with the search engine what
he had done with the browser.
In one sense, this failure to adapt to a networked world reflected
the integrity of Gates's vision of the PC as a tool of individual
empowerment. In the mid-1970s, when the news of the first
inexpensive microprocessor-based computers reached Gates at
Harvard, he instantly understood the implications. Until then, com-
puters had been instruments of organizations and agents of bureau-
cratization. The PC brought about a revolution, o ering the little
guy a chance to harness computing power for his personal ends.
Technology is now moving away from the individualistic and
toward the communal---toward the "cloud" (see our Briefing on cloud
computing, July/August 2009). Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software
architect, who has been the most influential engineer at the com-
pany since Gates retired from executive management, describes
the process under way as a return to the computing experience of
his youth, in the 1970s, when folks shared time on computers and
the network reigned supreme. Cloud technologies "have happened
before," he said in June. "In essence, this pendulum is swinging."
Similarly, Schmidt recalls how, in the early 1980s, Sun Microsystems'
OS was developed for a computer that lacked local storage.
The return to the network has big implications for the business
of operating systems. Computer networks used to be closed, pri-
vate: in the 1960s and '70s they revolved around IBM mainframe
operating systems and, later, linked Windows machines on desk-
tops and in back rooms. Today's computer networks are more like
public utilities, akin to the electricity and telephone systems. The
operating system is less important. Why does Google want to
Successful operating-system designs continue to pay o big,
though increasingly in cases where the system is well integrated
with hardware. Apple's experience is illustrative. For years, people
advised Steve Jobs, Apple's cofounder and chief, to decouple the
Mac OS from the company's hardware. Jobs never did. Indeed,
he moved in the opposite direction. With the iPod and then the
iPhone, he built new operating systems ever more integrated with
hardware---and these products have been even more successful
than the Macintosh. "For Apple, software is a means to an end,"
says Jean-Louis Gassée, who once served as the company's chief
of product development and who has since founded his own OS
and hardware company, Be. "They write a good OS so they can
have nice margins on their aluminum laptop."
The e ort to create a good OS carries risks. The biggest one for
Google is that expectations will outstrip results. Even though the
company plans to use a number of freely available pieces of com-
puter code---most notably the Linux "kernel," which delivers basic
instructions to hardware---its new system can't be assembled, like
a Lego plaything, out of existing pieces. Some pieces don't exist,
and some existing ones are deficient. There is the real chance that
Google might tarnish its reputation with an OS that disappoints.
Then there is the risk that cloud computing won't deliver on its
promise. Privacy breaches could spoil the dream of cheap and easy
access to personal data anywhere, anytime. And applications that
demand e cient performance may founder if they are drawn from
the cloud alone, especially if broadband speeds fail to improve.
These unknowns all present substantial threats.
David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale University, has
described the chief goal of the personal-computer OS as provid-
ing a " 'documentary history' of your life." Information technology,
he argues, must answer the question "Where's my stu ?" That stu
includes not only words but also photos, videos, and music.
For a variety of good reasons---technical, social, and economic---
the cloud will probably never store and deliver enough of that "stu "
to render the OS completely irrelevant. You and I will always want
to store and process some information on our local systems. There-
fore, the next normal in operating systems will probably be a hybrid
system---a "magic" blend, to quote Adobe's chief technology o cer,
Kevin Lynch. Predicting just how Microsoft and Google will pursue
the magic blend isn't possible. "We hope we are in the process of a
redefinition of the OS," Eric Schmidt told me in an e-mail. But one
thing is certain: the new competition in operating systems benefits
computer users. Microsoft will do more to make Windows friendlier
to the new networked reality. No longer a monopoly, the company
will adapt or die. It's worth remembering that in the 1970s, AT&T,
then the most powerful force in the information economy, "made
a set of decisions that doomed it to slow-motion extinction," says
Louis Galambos, a historian of business and economics at Johns
Hopkins. "Microsoft is not immune to 'creative destruction.' "
Neither is Google. To completely ignore operating systems
in favor of the cloud might be an e cient route to failure. And
there is much to admire in the very attempt to create a new one.
For Brin and Page, it is as much an aesthetic and ethical act as it
is an engineering feat.
G. PASCAL ZACHARY WROTE SHOWSTOPPER ON THE MAKING OF WINDOWS NT.
Today's computer networks
are more like public utilities,
akin to the electricity and tele-
phone systems. The operating
system is less important. So
why does Google want to
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