The Consumer Operating System Schism

In thinking broadly about the consumer market and all that has changed within it, I’ve been struck by an observation. It seems we have a schism in operating systems. It may very well be we are down the path between more consumer-centric operating systems (iOS and Android) and more corporate/business operating systems (Windows and OS X).

This is on the basis of what I’ve been saying about the iPad Pro along with Tim’s point about the potential of an Android PC. If we step back and reflect on the broad landscape, a specific observation stands out. There has been very little real software innovation when it came to things consumers care about in the desktop space. Most of what we have seen interesting and new around desktop software is about utility or productivity (outside of PC gaming, of course). The vast majority of interesting software that gets consumers excited and emotional is happening on mobile operating systems. After all, consumer-centric developers are mostly focused on mobile platforms, not desktop or laptop ones. One platform, the mobile one, has all the developers thinking about pure consumers while one platform has all/most developers thinking about business users. While business developers are certainly, out of necessity, crossing over and thinking about mobile platforms, the plethora of consumer-centric developers do not seem to be and are not spending much, if any, time thinking about desktop operating systems. This, in my mind, has led to the schism.

This hit me while I was discussing the overview of my thinking with a company very much centered on desktop/notebook platforms. The question revolved around invigorating the PC category again. My response was, more consumer-centric developers creating unique and innovative experiences for desktop and notebook platforms won’t happen. The question about reviving the PC is not one that is relevant to enterprise customers. Those customers aren’t going anywhere. It is squarely centered on consumers use/need of a PC in the shape of a desktop or notebook. The issue is the same as it’s always been — there simply isn’t a lot of innovation in consumer software happening on either Windows or OS X. It is all happening on iOS and Android. I don’t see that changing.

Apple taking a mobile OS, along with the developer ecosystem around it, and adding devices with larger screens is my central point. For all intents and purposes, the iPad Pro has a screen size now common among all notebook vendors at nearly 13 inches. What Apple is proposing to their developers, many with consumer-centric mindsets, is to start to think about larger screen computers and go crazy innovating on software. Now, there is no guarantee developers push the needle here any more than they did with the iPad. However, if we had to make a bet on whether innovation in consumer software will come from traditional developers (mostly corporate ones) who have been focused on desktop operating systems, or developers who have been innovating in consumer software for years and are now starting to think about bigger screen computers, which ones would we bet on? I’d bet on the mobile developer community.

This is why I say we may need to accept there is a schism between consumer operating systems and business/corporate operating systems. You’ll use Windows for “work,” if your job requires such a tool, and you’ll use iOS or Android at home and for play.

I suppose the question is whether or not there is hope at all in the consumer space for desktop operating systems. This obviously has huge implications to many on the platform side of PCs, especially those in the Windows camp. However, this schism is inevitable if Microsoft in general and the Windows ecosystem in particular, cannot stimulate a healthy consumer software developer ecosystem for their platform.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

10 thoughts on “The Consumer Operating System Schism”

  1. Showing my age…

    I remember when shareware exploded on to the scene. There were literally hundreds of thousands of programs available. All of them for the desktop. Most were subpar, some were true gems that crossed over to packaged software. Some were generic, some were highly vertical applications. Those were fun times indeed.

    Today’s App Stores remind me of these shareware repositories. They are similar in availability of quality apps, and pricing schemes.

    When judging the level of innovation (not market size), do you consider the shareware community on the desktop?

    1. This is a good point as there is interesting software here, however, not many people know about and mostly the pure consumer audience has no idea about it. I come at this from the point of view of what is mainstream and what is not. The whole consumer software topic is really void from mainstream consumer usage on desktop.

      That is what is intriguing to have to change.

  2. This is a very thought provoking article (as usual). Given Apple’s recent (and aggressive) push to get more iPads into the Enterprise space, how does this schism bode for the success of the iPad within Enterprises? Sounds like it gets relegated to a niche status and maybe Apple should be pushing Macs harder.

  3. I’m starting to wonder if I could move my business notebook to an iPad Pro. My current notebook is over 3 years old. I recently had a glitch that caused me to rethink why I have a notebook.
    There are still some things I just can’t do on an iPad. 95% of my job is possible, maybe 80% would be comfortable enough. That final 5% is just not possible.
    I would imagine that clipboard jobs would be very possible with an iPad Pro and a bit of custom software. In the last couple of years I’ve been to healthcare professionals that carry around a lightweight PCs like an HP or Surface Pro that certainly could transition to an iPad Pro. But they could also stay with a PC. It just seems to me the security of an iPad environment would be stronger.

  4. You’ve forced me to think deeply over this issue and I’ve written and scrapped a couple long comments in the process.

    I feel uneasy about the classification of OSes into “consumer” and “corporate”. I even feel that the “mobile” and “desktop” distinction is inappropriate. The only way that feels natural for me is to simply classify as “next generation” and “legacy”.

    There is a lot of innovation at the tablet-laptop interface. Windows 10, if successful, would basically make developing for mobile and desktop one and the same. Android running on Windows would have similar consequences. We also see x86 laptops like the new Macbook becoming as compact as iPads. Even iOS APIs are being gradually back ported to Mac OS X to ease development for both platforms. The iPad Pro and 2-in-1s are just one of the many attempts to bridge this divide, and it seems that innovations in this space will accelerate. The interface between tablets and desktops gets blurrier and blurrier, and I have little confidence that any classification that aligns with this will make sense in a few years time.

    Instead, I try to look at the security, simplicity and safety that iOS in particular brought in. With app-level sandboxing, restricted multitasking, limited file system exposure, Apple seems to have attempted to solve major issues plaguing current desktop PCs. Issues like malware, performance deterioration over time, misbehaving background tasks. A lot of this is not really about mobile vs. desktop or consumer vs. corporate. It’s about what computers should look like in 20 years time. That’s why I think it’s better to look at the new OSes as “next generation”. The way Chrome OS tackled this problem was to put everything in the cloud. iOS decided to improve at a more basic level.

    My view suggests that the next generation OSes will eventually conquer even corporate computing and that “legacy” OSes will only be used for tasks which require more freedom. It might take time, but it aligns very strongly with their focus on security. Therefore, PC vendors should work to embrace this and not wait for any resurgence in desktop OSes. I don’t see it happening, regardless of the health of the ecosystem.

    1. It is your last paragraph that, to borrow a term from Glaurung-Quena, forms my dystopian nightmare. It may indeed come to pass, but that is nothing less than a shift away from personal computing. Security and simplicity, by fiat, is incompatible with what is a “personally owned, and controlled” device. This is even more applicable to corporate computing, where IT, supposedly, knows what they’re doing.

      ChromeOS is nothing short of the return of the mainframe. Not that there’s not a place for it (or mainframes for that matter), but “personal”, it’s not.

      Not everyone needs a PC, and this is not to say that non-personal devices do not have value, but they do have this fundamental, and severe, limitation. It need not be so.

      Back when AOL, as a subscribed service, offered simplicity and security in using the internet, you were in a curated walled garden while using AOL, but the machine itself did not impose “AOL only”. You could exit the service and use the internet in the raw. This preserved freedom, while offering simplicity and security (for it’s time).

      I’m reminded of the old story of a financial analyst who bought VisiCalc, and an Apple II, with his own money, to bring to work. He liberated himself from the mainframe (IT) and did very well.

      Hitting closer to home, there are graduate students in the sciences and engineering, that need to code (and share that code) on the fly. They need to interface instruments for data acquisition and analysis. They cannot be beholden to their manufacturer as their IT department. Nor should they have to. These things are “personal”.

      You do not suggest that legacy is going away, but it’s “legacy” that codes the “modern”. “Modern” OSs raise the average, allowing most people to do extraordinary things. “Legacy” can do it all. As my AOL example above shows, you can “have it all”.

      1. After carefully reading your comment, I think we are basically in agreement. I do think that your definition of “personal” and “freedom” are a bit too Wild-West for me, but maybe that’s a cultural thing.

        I think it goes back to what Steve Jobs meant by “trucks”, and where the division between “cars” and “trucks” lies. Many people think that the division is between content consumption and content creation. Some people might think that it lies between consumer and corporate. My view is that it lies between those who prefer security and simplicity, and those who need ultimate control (developers etc.).

        The ultimate size of the “truck” market, and whether it will ever see a mass-market resurgence, depends on where the boundaries are. My view suggests that it will be very small.

        1. We certainly don’t disagree. Part of what I was saying had to do with the fact that it need not be an either/or situation (freedom/security) on a given device. These can be modes of operation.

          Also, historically, we began with freedom, and now its somehow less free. Even if I needed an IT person before, I could pick who would fill that role, and I could tell them what to do.

          I didn’t even touch on this before, but closed systems impose a barrier, to those inclined, on learning about computers. I wonder if I would ever know what a compiled is if I started with an iPad.

          If I understand you correctly, you look at things with the desire to understand the business case for the devices in question. I respect that, but my filters are entirely different.

          1. I’m not really trying to look at the business aspect. I’m trying more to understand the evolution of computing.

            I wonder how many programmers today are familiar with machine language and registers. I don’t think UNIX allows direct access to physical memory addresses. As systems have evolved, barriers have been introduced, which developers have mostly embraced because of the huge benefits.

            Of course, the people who design embedded systems and compilers will know a tremendous amount in these issues.

            I think that’s how computing evolves.

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