The return of the system

computer scienceFor the last thirty years or so, a war over the future of computing has been raging. Much of the mainstream has not even been aware of it, but it has been a brutal, pitiless conflict between software and hardware vendors. To see how it is relevant to mobile devices today requires a little reminder of history.

Thirty years ago, using a computer was still considered an office-bound activity. Before that, say in the 60s, computers took up entire floors of office buildings and you needed to wear surgical masks to get near them. Lots of spinning tape reels and flashing lights. Think Colossus: The Forbin Project. They all spoke like Hal.

However in the early 80s we were just reaching the stage where PCs were becoming available in many offices, but not in a majority of homes yet. Even if you were the sort of family that had a computer, there was a clear difference between a home computer (an Apple II for example, a Commodore, a Sinclair, a TRS-80) and an office computer (usually something by IBM, often running Windows but just as likely to require knowledge of Unix or Cobol or Fortran or something else that mortal man wasn’t meant to truly understand). Work was done at work, where your desktop computer lurked with the mission critical programs built into the system. Nothing more. The definition of mobile then was the Compaq portable, about the size of a suitcase and three times heavier than most children.

Then things began to change.

Windows 95 hit the desktop, a system that could serve both office and home users. Then in 1996 Jeff Hawkins created the Palm Pilot, the first computer I feel was truly mobile. It was limited, it was simple, but you could run small office applications anywhere, on the go. The original Palm did not run a system like Windows; it was a platform for other applications. The base software on a Palm Pilot didn’t do much, certainly not a lot that would interest the normal user. Instead it depended on small applications installed on the device for just about everything.

Windows and older operating systems were just that, systems. If you didn’t install a single additional program, most of your basic tasks could still be performed by features built into the system. The Palm Pilot, however, was a platform, requiring outside applications to give it functionality. Without programs a system is hampered, but without applications a platform is crippled.

The battle between systems and platforms was originally viewed as silly. How would a PDA ever replace a serious desktop machine? There were some attempts at thin client computing with all the applications on a central server but that went the way of the “paperless office,” aka nowhere.

By the year 2000, however, mobile devices were getting smarter and portable computers were getting smaller and the lines were blurring. With the introduction of the iPhone and its runaway success within a year, many people felt that the final battle in the system/platform war had been fought between Apple and Microsoft. After all, the iPhone can’t do much more than your average feature phone without applications. iOS is the ultimate platform and Apple knows it. Every big iPhone event tends to be given over to a large extent to App Devs, and the other parts are mostly Steve Jobs bragging about sales figures. According to the tech press, the battle is over and Apple has won hands down.

Apple certainly thinks it has. There are whispers that the new Mac OS will be totally based around interacting with the iPhone and iPad, that the MacBook will essentially become the largest iOS device. Apple has said over and over again that the tablet (running iOS of course) will become the dominate form of computing very soon, maybe even by tomorrow. Steve Jobs, many pundits, and a few hundred blogger fanboys are all saying that the rapid sales of the iPad and the enormous number of iPhone apps means that the public agrees. The system is dead; long live the platform. Applications Uber Alles.

However, things may not be over yet. Philip Elmer-DeWitt at Fortune is reporting on a study of iPad usage by nielsenwire that uncovered an interesting fact. About one third of the iPad users they studied have never actually downloaded an app from the App Store or installed one on their iPad. Nothing. No Angry Birds, no fart apps, no iBooks, no Pages. Nothing.

Personally I have a feeling those users make up the group that always says they just don’t know what to do with their iPad in surveys. They say they bought it on a whim, and now it sits on their desk like a very expensive teatray. After all, what can you do with the base applications on an iPad? You can surf the web if you avoid flash sites. You can do a little bit with basic email and contacts. You can watch video. You can use it like a digital photo frame. However even those functions are 10 times better with third-party apps. Apple deliberately kept the preinstalled applications simple to force users into the iOS App Store infrastructure.

So what are these app-less users doing? They are trying to figure out how to use the iPad like a notebook computer, like a system.

They can’t.

The inability of an iPad or an iPhone to work to its potential without applications is a weakness that both Google and Microsoft are attempting to exploit in the mobile market with a great deal of success.

Android is a system/platform hybrid thanks to Google apps and the cloud. You can get a lot done with Android out of the box, far more then with a virgin iPhone/iPad, assuming you have Google Apps and net access. With a good connection to the cloud, Android is a system; without it, Android is a platform depending on the applications you download from the Android Market. Perhaps that is the best of both worlds.

Windows Phone 7 seems to be (I have yet to play with it live so this is hearsay) basically a system. Most core functions are built into the software out of the box. There are a limited number of third-party applications available but those have been carefully designed to fit into the overall GUI and structure. From the look of them, once they are installed they act just like the features that were built in. Windows Phone 7 appears to be more of a modular system then a platform.

Systems still appeal to users, which is pretty clear based on the growth of Android and the amount of approval Windows Phone 7 is already garnering. There is something comforting about a device that is “almost all-in-one,” especially for people who are not terribly technical. Even I get scared by the App Store sometimes. Some hardcore Apple fans (yes, I am looking at you, Walt Mossberg) are saying the underlying architecture of WP7 is actually very good but that there are still gaps. That isn’t surprising for a first-generation device and it appears that Microsoft is committed to giving WP7 time to grow and develop through regular updates.

So despite all of Steve Jobs' howling and ego (he had a one-on-one meeting with President Obama today, which is sure to help his arrogance issues), Windows still rules notebook and netbook computing, Android for all of its fragmentation and openness issues has locked down more mobile devices than iOS, and Windows Phone 7 appears to be positioned to survive despite rivals trying to dismiss it.

No one can deny the popularity and merits of the iOS platform and the iPhone/iPod/iPad trifecta; however, the war isn’t over no matter what El Jobso says. New and more flexible systems like Android and WP7 are appearing and growing faster than platforms and it doesn’t matter how many soundboards and body mass calculators are downloaded from the App Store. Sure, the old mainframe school of computing is gone, but that just means that systems have learned to be more agile and to make use of programs better to add to existing functionality.

The system is dead; long live the system.

[Fortune]
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Zealot Benmergui

Zealot is a former contributing editor at Pocketables.

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