I was given a brief demo a few day’s ago of a beta version of the open source Moblin operating system. I went into it thinking: “Just what we need, yet another Linux variant”, but came out of it with a very different impression. Unlike more traditional operating systems, Moblin doesn’t try to be a generic foundation for any type of system, application, or user. Instead, it provides a more tailored experience built around the typical work flows of mobile users. It combines lightweight application support – with browsing, communications, and media playback – in a coheasive interface optimized for netbook screen size and power. This video will give you a quick introduction:
While I am quite impressed with Moblin, it isn’t the first OS targeted at this space. Linux vendor Xandros recently released Presto, a similar attempt to strip away most of the operating system details that can get in the way of a person simply using a device to get stuff done. Though both are based on Linux, these platforms are specifically not aimed at the “hardcore geek” Linux demographic. Their goal is to provide “run and gun” computing – letting people quickly get on, do something fast, and shut right down. They are not just targeting mainstream computer users – they are also targeting mainstream consumers that don’t fit the typical computer buyer demographic.
This new approach to operating systems recognizes that a rapid shift toward mobile computing is starting to take place. It is powered in large part by the runaway success of Apple’s App Store for the iPhone/iPod Touch platform, as well as the growing consumer adoption of netbook devices. While these devices are different in nature, both offer viable alternatives to more traditional computer usage. The “lower cost, easy on, always there” aspect of small, mobile devices is starting to trump the “higher price, fuller featured” aspects of full size laptops.
And it’s creating havoc in the software industry right now.
Software application vendors became obsessed with adding new features to their products. They attracted new users by delivering these extra features with each release at a similar price point to the previous release. They wanted to generate a perception of increasing value for the money spent. The goal was not just to get new people buying a product, but to sustain the lucrative revenue that came from existing users upgrading their now “feature deficient” software every 12-18 months. Adding features was the only way to make this model work.
Operating system vendors – specifically Microsoft – took a different approach. They aggressively pushed OEM agreements with all of the PC systems manufactures, and buried the cost of the operating system into the cost people paid for the computer. From a consumer’s perspective, the operating system came “free” with the hardware. They counted less on adding new features and more on new hardware sales to drive their revenue. And hardware sales were driven by PC manufacturers creating faster, more capable systems at roughly the same price points as the previous generation of hardware.
So why does mobile computing present such a problem?
Mobile computing is all about simplicity – getting things done quickly and easily. It doesn’t make sense to have products with hundreds of seldom used features crammed onto lower powered devices with smaller screens. There is a certain zen to the mobile computing experience that focuses people on what is really important to them. It creates a mindset that sees feature overload as diminishing a product’s value – not adding to it. And that mindset runs counter to the revenue model application vendors have counted on for the last two decades.
Operating system vendors face a different challenge from the mobile marketplace. Folks like Microsoft were able to leverage new hardware sales so profitably because of Moore’s Law – available computing power doubled every 18 months while the price stayed the same. Hardware vendors always had something new to replace the “old version”. But the push to mobile devices has flipped the benefit offered by Moore’s Law on its head. Instead of looking to double computing power, netbook providers are looking to ride the curve down and halve the price in that same timeframe.
The lower that the prices of these devices go, the less room there is to hide the cost of the operating system. This has driven most netbook manufactures to offer a Linux based derivative as a baseline system, and charge extra if someone want to take a version with Windows instead. It’s not clear that Microsoft, even with Windows 7, has a good answer for this. And if mobile is the real growth market of the next decade, they will need to come up with a viable offering in this space – not an artificially crippled version of their “mainstream” operating system.
You can sense a major realignment starting to form in the technology industry. Mobile computing, open source, software as a service, and search as a platform are all pressuring the status-quo from different directions.
This will be a very different industry 5 years from now.
In The Mobile Disruption (Part 2), I’ll take a closer look at what Apple is doing in this space. There are some exciting things going on in Cupertino beyond the new iPhone 3G S.