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Predictions

Others have started pontificating about the future of desktop computing. In particular, public predictions that free Unix variants - in particular, Linux - are going to displace MicroSoft's propietary OS Windows. The last dinosaur was the first such. The logic is a bit specious, but it still makes a good read. An excerpt from The Cryptonomicon was the second such. The logic and the writing are both better. It's by Neal Stephenson, the author of The Diamond Age and other things.

The Diamond Age is part of the pontificating. We are shown a society where the computer revolution and the nanotech revolution have combined. Computer are ubiquitous, and nearly invisible. The infamouse "computerized book" is a sheet of nanotech paper. The computers are inside it. Touching the corners does things like turn the page, go to the index or table of contents. It's basically printed that way, and combines the best features of paper with the best features of a computerized document.

If that's the coming revolution do we need operating systems? Answer: Yes, in the classic role as the mechanism that controlls access to the resources of the computer. However, these days the phrase operating system tends to include the user interface code as well. With this new paradigm, the user interface is pretty much invisible - and radically different as you move from one thing to another. So there is no need for an operating system in that sense.

The question is then whether either operating system can make the transition to this new environment. One is large, slow, and thoroughly tied to a graphical user interface. Newer variants work on smaller systems - but are still tied to a user interface. Given that there is a competing OS that is smaller, faster and not tied to any user interface, that certainly won't make the transition. Will Linux make the transition? That's a more interesting question. Also interesting is whether Unix moving onto these new platforms will increase it's visibility on the desktop.

Addendum from 2011

It's 2011. The iPhone - based on a tweaked version of Apple's OSX, which is a Unix variant, has been around for four years. But the hot news is the Android phone - which is based on a version of Linux with a new UI. Both run on devices that aren't much smaller than a page of paper. MS is still trying to come up with a hit OS in the phone market - but they aren't using a tweaked version of Windows, but completely new OS's.  It would seem that Linux - and Unix - has made the transition. I think it's still to early to decide if this means more Linux visibility on the desktop.
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