The incredible shrinking operating system

Windows, Mac OS, and Linux are all getting smaller. What does that mean for you?

While Apple always plays it close to the vest, it too has stated publicly that the next Mac OS will be smaller: "Taking a break from adding new features, Snow Leopard ... dramatically reduces the footprint of Mac OS X, making it even more efficient for users and giving them back valuable hard drive."

Not everyone is convinced that the traditional OSes will stay small. Tony Meadow, president of Bear River Associates, says that the current OS footprint reductions are all about pruning, such as removing old graphics APIs. But he believes that new capabilities will pull the OSes to keep growing, despite the periodic pruning.

New devices drive need for a much smaller OS

Beyond making the OSes smaller for physical computers and virtual machines, the major platform providers face a new pressure to reduce their OSes' size: the several new classes of devices, from netbooks to smartphones. Netbooks are a good example: Because their hardware resources are much more limited than regular laptops', Microsoft has had to keep Windows XP available for them, since Vista simply can't run on them.

Much of the latest mobile hardware can be run to good advantage on microprocessors and OSes that require less power. The high-tech rumor mill lately has been abuzz about the possibility of a full-size notebook running a smartphone-oriented processor such as ARM's with an embedded version of Linux; such a device would have a battery life of days, not hours. "To an ARM device, a laptop looks like the Hoover Dam in terms of battery life," says Jim Ready, CTO of Citrix Systems.

Dell has already taken a step in this direction with its "BlackTop" Latitude laptop, which can boot into Linux for e-mail, Web access, and document viewing instead of Windows (which you can also boot into for traditional work).

Smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and the Research in Motion BlackBerry are also increasingly providing computerlike capabilities, creating demand for computerlike OSes to run on them. Witness Celio's RedFly, a smartphone terminal that connects to a cellular phone over Bluetooth or a USB. It weighs just 1.4 pounds and features an 8-inch screen and an 8.3-inch keyboard large enough to do real work. RedFly uses the Windows Mobile OS as an operating system, and its users typically work in their browser, often using Web 2.0 applications.

Time for the browser to supplant the OS?

The dependence on the browser, instead of the OS, in such devices has convinced some that the OS should shrink even further, ceding much of its role to the browser.

One of those believers is Philippe Winthrop, a mobile analyst at Strategy Analytics. He says the notion of cloud computing is a major driver behind the movement away from full-featured OSes and toward having critical functions reside in the browser.

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