The Virtuous CIO  

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August 15, 2015 — Abstracting the Operating System

Those who have sat in my classes have heard me explain almost ad nauseum that the history of business technology is the history of abstraction. In the 1950s the creation of the original programming languages, starting with assembler, and moving through FORTRAN and COBOL, abstracted the generally labor-intensive work of coding in machine language. In the 1960s the development of the operating system abstracted much of the tedium of writing code to manage files. In the 1970s and 80s the development of database management systems (DBMS) allowed computer systems professionals to let the software do the work.

One of the direct consequences of abstraction in technology is the commoditization of that technology. Once the user acquired the ability of telling the computer what to do the question of how the task is performed became irrelevant. The purveyors of enterprise class database systems learned this in the early part of this century. The DBMS lived behind the wall, and communicated via SQL statements. The open source movement developed several credible database systems which followed the eighty twenty rule. They could do 80% of the work of a major database system for a fraction of the cost.

And so when the question was asked, “What database system are you running?” the answer became, “Who cares?” Recently in a conversation about our new ERP system, which is totally cloud – based, the question was asked concerning which database the system runs on. And once again the answer was, “Who cares?” I am entering transactions and generating invoices with the system, and the vendor is guaranteeing the stability and security of my data. If he is using the Oracle DBMS, in the end it really doesn’t much matter to me.

I am a little slow in getting to the point today. I wanted to talk about Windows 10. Microsoft kicked their newest operating system out the door on July 29, and the adoption rate is rapid – exceptionally so. Of course the largest percentage of installations at this point have been the free upgrades offered by Microsoft to users of Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. The company will not begin booking serious revenue until the computer manufacturers began installing Windows 10 on their products (which is already happening).

It is something of a relief to Microsoft, I am sure, that they are shipping a product that is not being met by significant consumer resistance. I have Windows 10 installed on a touchscreen laptop which I carry to meetings. In my opinion it’s a good operating system. I expect that sometime within the next year I will see Windows 10 on my desktop in the office as well. Incidentally I thought Windows 8 was a good operating system too. Except for the strange user interface.

So, let’s get to the point. When I am working at my desk I typically have five applications running: email, VoIP client, file manager, web browser, and a word processor. On my work desktop each of these applications is Windows specific. At home I run a similar group of applications (except for the VoIP client), but each is open source. Now I can run of these open source applications on Windows, and have done so in the past. However, at home I generally run these applications on Linux.

At the end of the day we have abstracted the operating system to the point where if you point to the word processor or the browser and asked the user what they are running they replied that they are running Windows. Just like they use Kleenex. Now Kimberly – Clark will insist that you are using Kleenex brand tissues. And Microsoft insists that Windows is a trademarked product. In both these cases the vendor has been so successful in the sales and marketing of their product they risk commoditizing themselves. They have become a generic.

The focus of my work is in the applications that I run. I actually pay little attention to the operating system. The OS must fulfill certain functions for me, and all the major systems do so. At the end of the day you may ask me what operating system I’m using and I will answer, “Who cares?”

And this is the answer that frightens Microsoft. The people who run this company are not fools, and they can read the tea leaves as well as anyone. But they are rapidly developing new revenue streams as the sales from Windows gradually decline. Microsoft has stayed on top of this industry longer than any other company except possibly IBM.

As IT professionals, reading the tea leaves, how should we plan based upon these trends? That will be next week’s discussion.