After contemplating operating systems at length, I started rethinking the whole thing and I began to wonder if operating systems will be relevant a couple of years from now. Because everything is changing.
Change is hardly new to the world of computers and technology. Change is what drives the industry. Change is how come you need to buy new software, new hardware, new operating systems. Change can make things work better, but it’s not unusual to discover that your “upgrade” is a downgrade because what used to work no longer does. You pays your money, you takes your chances.
I grew to adulthood in a pre-computer society. I started working before cable TV, when encyclopedias were huge heavy sets of books and a computer was gigantic and needed a whole building for itself. It ran on punch cards and used weird languages like COBOL and FORTRAN. Even decades later, personal computers were just one step removed from a doorstop, floppy disks were 5-1/2 inches across and really flopped.
Those early machines (personal units, not mainframes) — I hesitate to call them computers — didn’t do much. They didn’t have hard drives. There was no software and no user-friendly interface. I don’t think the concept existed. No WYSIWYG. What you saw was a black screen with lurid green letters that made you feel like you were going blind after an hour or two.
Then … everything changed.
First there was Apple and then Windows. Windows didn’t work very well at first, but soon enough, it got better. And then better again.
There were different players and more operating systems in the beginning. Wang and DEC plus a crazy quilt of dedicated word processors and computers made by Commodore, Atari and many others. For a while, I had an Amstrad, a European machine that was almost a computer, kind an intelligent typewriter with a screen that spit out paper.
Then, everything changed again. Computers started to really do stuff. It was magic!
For a while, it seemed like everything changed every day. One day, there was a thing called the Internet. I had to buy and install Netscape to access it. Once connected, there wasn’t much going on, but it was cool to just roam around and see what there was do see.
You could send electronic mail — email — if you had a friends with computers. You sent them messages over old copper telephone wires and everything happened in slow motion.
To get on the Internet , you turned on the computer and the modem. Went to the kitchen. Prepared dinner. Cooked dinner. Served dinner. Ate dinner. Cleaned up. By the time you got back, you might have managed to connect. Or not.
Then suddenly AOL popped up and I got a really fast modem, a whopping 2400 BPS! Imagine that. I worked in California from my home office in Boston. Cool! Telecommuting was the cat’s pajamas.
By the time my granddaughter was born in 1996, everybody had a computer or two. In her world, computers have always been fast, the Internet has always been the world’s shopping mall.
At age three, she could run basic applications. It’s like electricity to us: something you use that’s always there, always was. I’m sure she can’t imagine a world without it. It’s hard for me to remember so far back.
For a brief interval, the rate of change slowed. We drew a collective breath and didn’t have to buy new computers for a couple of years. High speed connections arrived, though most home users didn’t have it right away. Everything kept getting faster and soon, with cable modems, no one could even remember what it was like to try to get onto the Internet using an old telephone line.
Every time you looked around, there was a new generation of processors, bigger and faster hard drives, amazing super high-definition monitors and speaker systems to knock your socks off.
The Internet became a world-sized shopping mall and overnight, catalog shopping became website cruising. The Internet was a world unto itself; I played bridge in real-time with a partner who lived on an island off the Pacific coast.
We have computers all over the house and what isn’t a computer is run by a computer or contains a mini computer … microwave ovens, smartphones, digital cameras, and GPS units. I have three computers — desktop, laptop, and Kindle. Garry has the same arrangement . There’s an extra Kindle or two lying around, too.
Six computers and only 2 people. All it takes is a brief interruption of connectivity to leave us wandering like wraiths, without form or function.
Now, it’s about “the cloud.” Same old Internet, but “cloud” is the “new” word for stuff stored on external servers. We’re going back to where we began, to using stripped down computers with no hard drives. Instead, everything is stored on someone else’s computer — out there. In the “cloud.” Our data might be anywhere. We have no way of knowing where it lives.
Am I the only one who finds this unnerving?
I can see advantages. When you eliminate memory sucking operating systems and cumbersome installed applications, your computer will run faster. Start-up is instant. You don’t have to maintain and upgrade expensive applications and volumes of data. You don’t need ever bigger hard drives, more memory, and video RAM. You wind up with faster computers that are less expensive and easier to maintain. It’s a win-win, right?
Or is it?
How much do you trust your Internet service provider?
If your cable company has a bad day or the servers on which you store your critical data go down — even for a short while — you have nothing. As long as everything works like it’s supposed to, it’s hunky dory, but Murphy hasn’t left the building yet.
Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and will do so at the worst possible time.
Maybe it’s my age showing, but I would prefer to have data on hard drives that I control. That I own.
The idea of entrusting everything — from my photographs to the manuscript of my book — to an unknown server somewhere in the world scares me. What if the building in which the server storing my stuff burns down? Gets hit by a terrorist attack? Taken down by hackers? You have no way of knowing what country your data is in, how stable its government is, or how good an infrastructure it maintains. You financial data could be in Pakistan, Indonesia, or Kuala Lampur. Or next door.
Is there a compromise possible? Because when I think about entrusting everything to a cloud, I begin to twitch.
How many times have you been unable to access a web page because servers are out? What if you need a critical piece of data from a server while its offline?
My bank was hacked. BOA had to send me a new bank card. Lands End and Adobe were hacked too. I had to redo my accounts because they’d been compromised. Lots of other places too over the years, places that were “unhackable.” I know I’m not unhackable. I just figure I’m lucky and don’t have anything worth stealing.
If your ISP is down, you’re out of business. If you think your cable company has you by the throat now, how much worse will it be if everything you need to run your life and business is dependent on their services?
Those of you who are old enough to remember the great Northeast power blackout in the mid 1960s know what I mean when I say overloaded systems go down like dominoes. I’m all in favor working with my fellow human beings throughout the world, but at a certain point, when does inter-dependency make us too vulnerable?
If you put too many eggs in the basket and the basket falls — and it will — eggs break. In which case you don’t have an omelet, just a mess of busted eggs.