Its the OS, Stupid

It's unrealistic to expect middleware and server-based computing to displace locally run apps and smash Microsoft's monopoly.

Ive been hearing a lot lately about how the operating system is headed toward irrelevance, tossed aside at the dawn of some platform-agnostic middleware-driven utopia. Its a provocative and attractive concept, but its also incorrect.

As long as a single company controls the software that runs nearly every personal computer in the world, the OS will continue to matter a great deal. Pretending otherwise doesnt do any of us—except, perhaps, Microsoft—any good.

The irrelevance of the OS was the topic of a recent conversation I had with Rob High, chief architect for IBMs WebSphere product family. IBM is asserting that middleware is evolving into a sort of postmodern OS thats superseding the client OS layer to deliver us our application needs over the network.

The "network is the computer" folks at Sun are singing a similar tune about how the focus belongs not on the OS but on middleware. Sun has named its Linux desktop product the Java Desktop System because, according to Sun, its Java that matters most about the system.

It makes sense for IBM and Sun to stress middleware—they both sell the servers and the software that drive these sorts of solutions—but their approaches undervalue the importance of client-based computing.

The client OS is a critical building block. For most applications, Windows is, or is perceived to be, necessary. That is why 92 percent of users accessing Google between last October and November were running some version of Windows.

Operating system dependence is why IBM projects it will take at least two years—and probably much longer—for the company to switch its employees from Windows to Linux desktops, as indicated in a recently published company memo.

That same dependence is why, when Sun officials came to demo their Java Enterprise System for me, they used a Windows laptop, albeit with StarOffices presentation software.

I dont intend to beat up on IBM or Sun here—both companies have contributed a lot to open software and standards—I just think that its unrealistic to expect middleware and server-based computing to displace locally run applications and smash Microsofts monopoly.

Its true that more enterprise applications are being targeted at the middleware layer. However, the desire to boost the richness of browser-based applications, as well as plain laziness or lack of interest in cross-platform support, lead to the creation of many Web-based applications that are locked in to Internet Explorer and Windows.

Application delivery through thin clients and browsers isnt new. Its supposed to be all about hardware efficiency and management simplicity, but theres somewhat less efficiency and simplicity than what first meets the eye. If Im running an application locally, I have to worry about my local machine. However, if Im running an application from a thin client, Ive got to worry about my local machine, the remote machine and the link between the two.

Therefore, I see no reason why computing power wont continue to become more distributed rather than less. As that trend continues, those distributed computers will need an operating system to manage them. Thats why we, as a community of users and solution providers and vendors, need an open platform at the operating system level because the bulk of computing is going to keep taking place at that level for some time.

It would be great if the operating system didnt matter so much, and when youre dealing with an open platform, it doesnt. I can run some of my most-valued applications from my Linux machines, such as Mozilla, and Gaim, on Windows as well.

It may be easy to gloss over the grip that Microsoft and Windows hold over our computing infrastructure with talk of sidestepping that layer. The marketing pitch of IBM and Sun notwithstanding, the operating system layer still does matter. In the face of dominance by a single vendor, its important to strive for diversity in operating systems—with standards, not a single vendor, being the common denominator.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at