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Slashdot & The Future of Operating Systems

Who'd be a software visionary in a world of Slashdottings and disparagement?

A wise man once quipped that "Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." Matt Hartley, a contributing writer to OSWeekly.com, discovered the truth of this first-hand - and painfully - this week when an item that he'd written got picked up (and its content mauled) by Slashdot.

Hartley's crime was to have written a futuristic sketch that he titled "A New Kind of OS." In it, he mused aloud about what he described as "the obvious advantages to an operating system that actually morphed and adapted to the needs of the users instead of the other way around." His big idea, in summary, that one's computer might in the future be more like a "probability engine" - operating 24x7 in "adaptive mode" and learning, from the ways we'd used our PC or our Mac in the past, how we'd probably prefer it to behave in the future:

Consider the obvious advantages to an operating system that actually morphed and adapted to the needs of the users instead of the other way around. Not only is there no such OS like this, the very idea goes against much of what we are currently seeing in the current OS options in the market.
The response of the Slashdot community was to belittle Hartley for being "lame" at best - and "filled with highfalutin and banal platitudes" at worst.  According to one poster, "This article shows the level of understanding of a middle-age soccer mom."

"What's such a dumb article, so wrong about what an OS is, doing in OS Weekly?" lamented another. And here, really, was the problem. What Hartley had been musing out loud about was not a futuristic OS at all: it was, if anything, a futuristic User Interface (UI).

"The features [Matt Hartley]] describes are not OS features," thundered Doc Ruby. "They're app features. There's nothing stopping an app developer from including those features in an app running on any OS, or even a cross-plaform app running on Windows/Linux/OSX."

Besides, as another poster pointed out, "This sort of 'adaptive learning' for applications has already been done, albeit in a limited and utterly frustrating way, courtesy of MS Office and their magical hiding menus."

"The mistake that Windows and many GUI systems have made," wrotes another, "is in trying to HIDE the system in metaphor. It always backfires, because although a transparent system may be harder to learn, it is far, far easier to deal with once the learning curve has been climbed."

His point was that, since we've discovered that even the simplest metaphoric GUI requires 'training,' well.. ."you may as well train the end user how it actually WORKS instead of trying to hide it from them in a bubble of 'interface'..."

Hartley's idea, though, however ill-expressed, resonated with at least one Slashdot reader:
'an OS that changes with you, without you having to do it with coding': Put some useful meat on that suggestion and you may become a millionaire. The computer should adapt to the user, not the other way around is not new, the problem is it's a vague aspiration which has proven difficult to nail down in any useful way. Microsoft's latest products automatically hide menu items unless you use them often, and frankly I hate it.
And here, at last, comes the connection to social software. For what Hartley, unknowingly or not, was sketching out - once you realize that he meant UI not OS - is an app that sits on a user's client and gets to know him and he goes about his business, then incorporates that knowledge into the UI defaults. And once you start thinking about that, you are indeed into some deep - yet potentially actionable - territory.

Because why stop there? If we're headed out into the future, why not go the whole nine social-software yards? Why not allow the app to process not just what programs the user uses but what data the user produces and consumes. Then Hartley's notion of a predictive engine becomes something altogether more far-reaching. One's computer would be capable of interacting with other computers, in the background, and synching up with them in terms of where you were planning to be (via parsing your calendar), how you were planning to get there (via parsing your airline bookings), and even who you were planning to be there with (by synching up others going to the same place at the same time...and who were close enough acquaintances for you to authorize them to have access to the predictive benefit of such data).

Now that is what I call social software!

An intriguing sub-problem of such an app would be authentication:
"My major concern with such a system...is what happens when some other user sits at my computer and uses it for a while. Would the 'adaptive engine' or whatever be smart enough to figure out that there was someone else there or would I have to reset my settings and have it relearn everything? Another interesting aspect would be as a constant check to make sure the allowed user is the one at tthe keyboard. Different enough input stats and the password box pops up."
But assuming this could be overcome, isn't this the Next-Gen LinkedIn of the future - making mere "social search" look like low-hanging fruit by comparison?

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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