Are operating systems vendors ‘dumbing-down’ products for profit?

Rodney Gedda

Rodney Gedda is the former deputy editor of CIO and former editor of Techworld.

There’s a concerning shift in the operating system industry. Vendors are slimming down their offerings to the extent that the operating system itself is becoming more of a single purpose conduit for social media and content services, all in the name of money. So is it wrong to suggest vendors have a vested interest in making their OS products “dumber”?

Following a recent opinion piece about the release of Ubuntu 11.04 and how Canonical’s operating system services strategy is now remarkably similar to that of Apple’s, I received some interesting feedback.

One commentator wrote:

What the sh*t is this guy smoking? both have server editions? both "have" unix like OSes? its like saying one person is copying another because they both have feet...

Hang on a minute I’m not smoking anything, I promise!

In the comparison of the two companies I included the obvious similarities as a way to “round up” their common business interests. Sure Ubuntu and Mac OS X are different Unix-like operating systems, but let’s be straight – they are both used as mediums for selling content and services for profit.

Taking the timeless design, elegant simplicity and technical prowess of Unix and turning it into a locked-down kiosk for the sole purpose of delivering software and content to unwary consumers is dumbing-down an operating system in the exact sense of the term

I never suggested one was “copying” another. In the case of their server operating systems, Ubuntu is already a lot more widely deployed than OS X and that trend is set to continue as Apple integrates its server product into the OS X desktop and Ubuntu takes leaps and bounds into the enterprise and cloud server space.

If a comment is misguided or vitriolic I still welcome it and value the feedback – even if the person’s mouth will forever be larger than their achievements. Journalists should also make the most out of any commentary they receive for future articles.

In the case of the Ubuntu-Apple piece, one improvement I would make if I were to write it again is explain the use of “dumbing-down”.

I know it’s a clumsy term that can be easily misinterpreted, but why I used it had as much to do with haste as it did observation. And the more I think about it, perhaps it’s not such an irrelevant term after all.

In IT circles the concept of “dumb” doesn’t immediately translate to “stupid”. It’s commonly used to describe a device or system that has a limited set of features. A “dumb terminal” is, by design, a thin-client lacking complex processing and storage facilities typically found on a “fat client” – another term that could be easily misinterpreted. And in case you’re wondering “fat client” doesn’t mean people who use PCs are overweight.

So as the tech saying goes, can an operating system be dumbed-down?

Considering Android and iOS are based on Unix-like operating systems, but have a limited set of features and are solely geared to serving one vendor’s interests then the answer is an unequivocal yes, that’s true.

Taking the elegant design, timeless simplicity and technical prowess of the Unix operating system and turning it into a locked-down kiosk for the sole purpose of delivering software and content to unsuspecting consumers for profit is dumbing-down in the exact sense of the term.

The operating system has been dumbed-down regardless of whether the person using it is a rocket scientist or neurosurgeon.

Operating systems can be turned into kiosks much the same way PCs can be turned into thin-clients.

Now, with the release of Ubuntu Natty and its focus on content and services – not to mention Canonical doesn’t credit any upstream projects in its company announcements – is the most popular desktop Linux heading for a dumber future as well? It seems that way.

Of course, with Ubuntu being open source people are free to change it as they see fit, but that won’t stop Canonical integrating more of its online services into the platform.

Social media and Cloud services are great, but let’s not let the operating system become the service, whether it’s built from open source code or not.

Why operating systems matter

People may say: “Why do I need to care about the operating system when the apps do everything I need it to?”

Operating systems are most definitely important. Operating systems run the applications that control the information. If people have a good working knowledge of what their operating system is doing they can better use the applications to their advantage.

The worrying trend is for operating systems to become so single-purpose that in order to do anything you need to point-and-click your way through some vendor’s online software and content service.

This is none more so apparent that with Mac OS X which will ship with the iOS App Store in its next release. What began life as quite an open system is progressively being dumbed-down for the benefit of Apple.

While it’s not the most obvious description, it may be helpful to say vendors are dumbing-down operating systems if it awakens people to the fact that some of their basic rights, like privacy, can be violated without their knowledge.

Knowing what an operating system is doing and the information it is harvesting is of paramount importance to the continuing development of computing systems.

Richard Stallman recently labelled Cloud computing as “careless computing” and the same argument can be applied to dumbed-down operating systems – sure they’re easy to use, but can you trust them with your data?

To overcome the trend people need to put less faith in operating systems directly tied to vendors’ interests and demand a more open environment. And let’s never let the vendors dumb us down.

Follow Rodney Gedda on Twitter: @rodneygedda

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Tags: open source, Apple, Linux, ubuntu, ios, operating systems, canonical

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