Sun Launches OpenSolaris on a Post-OS World

Because you were probably just thinking that your choices on operating systems were feeling a little limited.

It’s an odd time to be releasing a new operating system. Desktop operating systems have had a rough go of it so far this year. Microsoft Windows Vista has been less than an outright success and Gartner is saying that “Windows is collapsing.” Both Red Hat and Novell openly shared last month that a profitable consumer desktop product was not in the foreseeable future for either company. Somewhat grim. And yet onto these hostile waters Sun this week floated the first formal release from Project Indiana, OpenSolaris 05.2008. The OpenSolaris charter states it is “well-suited for desktops, laptops, servers, and data centers.” Let’s tackle those first two.

The early reviews of the OpenSolaris desktop are mostly positive save a few hardware support issues (what OS doesn’t suffer this fate these days?) but it really matters very little. The biggest problem is that OpenSolaris is a 3-year-old project attempting to solve a problem that we don’t really have anymore. We don’t need another OS. We need tools that allow us to be less dependent on operating systems and the companies that create them.

Let’s back up a bit. First, desktop operating systems bore me. They all have some things I like and some things that drive me up a wall, but, honestly, operating systems aren’t a religious issue for me. OSes are tools and if the tools don’t inhibit me from doing my job then I’m not going to take too much of an issue with them. Not everyone is like that. I know people that when they see a car they start waxing poetic about engineering, horsepower, clean lines, &c. Me, I see four wheels and a seat. So, yeah, you can go on-and-on about ZFS, super-clean codebases, and whatever you like, but it’s falling on deaf ears. And here’s where Sun runs into a problem, because I’m probably their target audience for OpenSolaris: tech-savvy, not too frantic about licenses, business user, and not too dependent on specialized applications. But in today’s world, this combination doesn’t compel me to try out a new OS. We are — finally! — past operating systems. Let me give you an example.

Last week my primary computer got hit by lightning and is now serving as a very attractive doorstop until I can take it into the shop. So, I’ve been using whatever computer is at hand and as a result bouncing from OS to OS. In the past seven days I’ve used Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows XP and Vista, and Ubuntu and all-in-all I’d say I really only lost about 2 hours of work, mostly resetting passwords and digging up SSH keys. How is this possible? Because 90% of the applications I use or the data I interact with is uncoupled from the desktop operating system: it’s running in a browser, it’s on a remote server, it’s in a database somewhere. And that is as it should be. Three years ago this wasn’t the case because it wasn’t quite possible yet. Parts of Sun have figured this out — they also released JavaFX this week — but other parts are firmly rooted in 2005.

To give you a sense of how archaic I feel releasing OpenSolaris now is, let’s look at another technology company, Google, and what they released in 2005:

  • Google Maps API
  • Google Talk
  • Acquired Urchin and made Web Analytics free
  • Video search beta
  • RSS-enabled Google News
  • Google Reader
  • Gmail Mobile

All of these items either changed how I got work done or positively affected what I considered was possible with modern computing. And none of them had anything to do with an operating system. And this was three years ago, three years from now the word “desktop” is going to sound very dusty indeed.1 More-and-more, this falling away of restrictions — restricted to place or operating systems — not access to a kernel codebase I’m never going to touch, is becoming my definition of “freedom.”

To be honest, I’m not even sure Sun views OpenSolaris as a real operating system. It seems more like a technology preview vehicle for IPS, ZFS, DTrace, SMF, and whatever cool stuff Sun has built recently and would rather not integrated into Linux. But maybe I’m missing something. Maybe what the world needs is more desktop operating systems. Maybe you’re critically dependant on your OS and your world would grind to a halt without many of it’s special features. Me? I’ve got four wheels. I’ve got a seat. And the last time I saw something that fundamentally changed how I thought about a desktop operating system it was 1999 and it was Mac OS X. It’s been nearly 10 years of yawns since then.

1 Update: While I missed it when it first came out earlier this week, you might check out this NetworkWorld article, “Desktop of the Future” for more on this topic.

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