Every transaction processed by your credit card company, every text you send, every video game you’ve ever played, are all possible because of an operating system.
It’s the most basic, fundamental interaction you have with a computer, especially for consumer technology. If a company sold a great phone but its operating system was difficult to navigate and didn’t have a variety of applications (cough, Windows Phone), then it would fail.
The original iPhone was a revelation for the smartphone age, with an operating system that was easier to navigate than anything else on the market, with well-designed features and applications people actually wanted to use. The phone was simple and intuitive to interact with, and the software complimented the touch screen interface in a way that no other phone had done before.
But despite updates, operating systems are often stagnant, a relic of the era in which they were developed. The operating systems we use on laptops or desktops, like Windows, Mac OS, and even Linux, were originally built before the internet era, meaning many programs exist independently from the web, where we do most of our work now. It’s time for a fresh look at what an operating system, and therefore a computer, can be. The internet and the influx of technology like artificial intelligence has expanded the possibilities for how we interact with our technology, whether that be through our voices, movements, or even tapping at a phone screen.
Even mobile operating systems like Android and iOS are being retrofitted with AI-powered voice assistants and connectivity to the Internet of Things. They “work” but anyone who has regularly used an IoT device or Siri know they’re unreliable and generally limited. Siri has to connect to a server far away to understand what you’re saying, making every conversation halting and cumbersome (if they even qualify as conversations). IoT devices often fail to connect at all, and are easy targets for hackers as they use nonsecure software. For us to enjoy the full capabilities of the web, to have a seamless experience across all our devices, and one that could maybe even pick up where we left off on another device, we need a better system.
Tech companies have ideas about what these next-generation systems will be. Amazon is betting that the future of computing is one where we talk to our devices to get things done. It’s also getting rid of the notion that a computer is just in your hand or on your lap. Amazon is putting its computers in your microwave, your clock, and your car. Each one will learn from you to improve your overall experience.
Google, on the other hand, thinks the laptop can be refined further, just with better software. It’s trying to redesign how a computer fundamentally interacts with the internet, making the whole computer into a web browser. That way the computer can learn how you work on the internet across applications, ultimately customizing itself to its owner.
What is an operating system?
An operating system is a set of software that translates commands between you and the tiny silicon chip doing all the hard work inside your computer. We speak in keystrokes, clicks, and voice commands, and then the operating system funnels that into the billions of 1s and 0s that are being switched on and off inside your computer’s central processing unit.
Another way to think about it is like a car. Instead of manipulating the steering mechanisms, transmission, engine, and brakes directly with your hands, you have a steering wheel, a shifter, gas pedal, and brake pedal. They make it possible for a human to operate a complex machine, the same way an operating system does.
The first operating systems for consumers didn’t look like the ones we interact with today; they only consisted of text. A user would type very specific commands to create a new document, retrieve data, or delete a file. It required a computer literacy that few acquired, since the commands were specific and there was no room for error. Then, in the 1980s, IBM, Microsoft, and Apple introduced the graphical user interface. There was now a desktop where people could store files and programs. Suddenly you didn’t need to learn sets of commands to use a computer, you just needed to point and click.
The computer had transformed into something that anybody could use. It was one of the first steps in making computers as common as they are today.
The future of computing
But now that the era of mobile computing has been established, operating systems are hurtling toward a new paradigm. Devices are functionally always connected to the internet, and, by extension, connected to things like smart speakers, lights, and even to another computer, phone, tablet, or TV.
“We’re not talking about necessarily a single screen device or, you know, sitting down in front of a laptop. We’re thinking about the more abstract terms about the world the customer lives in,” Rich Koehler, director of product for Alexa AI, tells Quartz.
The operating system of the future isn’t just for one device. Rather, it supports an entire ecosystem. Amazon is demonstrating that with Alexa, a custom voice-based operating system that started out as only a smart speaker. Now Alexa also exists in your phone, your stereo, your microwave. You no longer need a different operating system for each IoT device or smart speaker.
“All of these things together constitute the world the customer lives in, and we have the ability to make that world simpler for the customer by bringing together the things that they want to do and have that world react to their desires,” Koehler said.
Amazon has had the opportunity to reinvent the operating system because it started from scratch—a new kind of operating system that just uses your voice instead of mouse clicks or a keyboard. To make this voice-first approach possible, the system uses artificial intelligence to decode spoken words into text and decide what a user is asking, meaning personalized AI is in the operating system’s core design.
“I love the concept that there is an AI foundation that enables the transition from the customer needing to learn the technology, to instead the AI learns the customer and then makes the technology available,” Koehler said.
The screen lives on
Amazon’s futuristic operating system is rooted in completing real-world tasks, like turning on a light or a coffee machine, playing music, or answering simple questions. But when you’re sitting down to do some research or write, say, a news article, the screen still reigns supreme.
That’s where Google comes in. Even though it operates Android, the mobile operating system with more than 80% market share, the company is still trying to redesign what a laptop operating system looks like in a time when our technology should be adapting to us.
Chrome OS takes the approach of making the internet browser pretty much the whole computer. Since most of us are booting up our laptops to just open an internet browser anyway, Google decided to cut away everything else.
That’s part of the reason why Chromebooks can be so appealing in 2018 and beyond—simple web searching, social media, and entertainment are all done in a browser tab, so there’s little need for anything else. This allows it to make relatively cheap, nimble devices. A Chromebook is more of an access point than a standalone machine.
Still, Google doesn’t think it has perfected the operating system for the perfect information device, though.
Much like Amazon, the Chrome and Chrome OS teams are working to make the software more personalized and adaptable to the user based on what they’ve done before.
“If you take a step back and ask yourself what is it that makes the web unique versus other platforms built on top of the internet, history is one of those pieces,” Ben Galbraith, a senior product director for Chrome, told Quartz.
Since your computer knows about the kind of information you search for, or the actions you want do, it can automate some of the work and plop a button in front of you.
For example, the Pixel Slate, a convertible laptop with Chrome OS, suggests actions within the application launcher. Right between the Google search bar at the top of the screen and the applications you can tap to launch, there are five actions or recently used apps that the operating system thinks you might want to use based on your history of using the computer. These are still early days for our computers suggesting actions and assisting with our work, but it’s a step towards a future where computers are collaborators as much as they are tools.
As these operating systems become more ubiquitous in our homes and try to predict our next move every waking minute of the day, new questions are emerging about what the duty of an operating system really should be. Is it a portal to let you onto the internet, or a gatekeeper to keep you from falling in?
Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS now have features that allow you to see how much time you’re spending on your phone each day. It’s a rebuttal against the idea that our time spent on our devices should be like time spent in a casino, without any real way to know how much has passed unless you’re paying attention. After years of fighting to consume our time, there’s a notion that our devices should help us reclaim some.
These features are new, and it’s still unknown whether people will find them useful. But an operating system that could alter your relationship with technology raises the question of what other problems an operating system design could solve. How do the form and function of our operating systems now contribute to the problems plaguing the internet today? Could a teenager’s phone stop bullying? Could it warn you that you’re reading news from a disreputable source?
If companies take that path, they would be following precedents set by companies pursuing self-driving cars with features that automatically correct your driving if you’re veering out of a lane, or can’t stop fast enough. It would be a huge shift that would make the operating system inherently political, making decisions on what a computer should and shouldn’t be used for, and granting technologists far more control over how technology is used. But it’s not necessarily unprecedented.
“Cars are not particularly unsafe, but drivers do crazy things all the time,” artificial intelligence journalist John Markoff said when talking about autonomous vehicles. “So if we can be sort of wrapped around with a cocoon that will make us make better decisions, I think we should go that direction.”
Maybe that’s the way we should head with all of our technology: With safety as our north star.