In the early 1970s the SHARE users group of IBM mainframe computers released a prediction about the future called the SILT report. They envisioned a transition where the operating system would become part of the microcode of the computer, leaving only the Application Programming Interface for customers. Today, this prediction may finally be coming true, at least on handheld devices.
One aspect of the prediction came true. Large IBM systems did migrate the Virtual Machine (VM) supervisor from software to microcode, so today's systems run in virtual machines configured on the hardware console. However, mainframe customers were more interested in compatibility rather than evolution. So today's systems can run the binary image of a program compiled 45 years ago, but the system architecture has been frozen.
When the first IBM PC came out, the DOS operating system consisted of about 12,000 lines of program code. Today the Windows, Linux, and MacOS systems are massively complex monsters that are sold to consumers embedded in a $400 device sitting on the shelves at WallMart near the stereo systems. It is not surprising that consumers cannot really manage a device that is internally as complicated as a Space Shuttle and end up with spyware, viruses, and all sorts of problems.
In exchange, consumers get a general purpose computer with a real operating system on which they can develop programs in any computer language. That is not, however, even remotely related to the way they use the device.
Microsoft has a version of Windows called "CE" that is embedded in phones (as "Windows Mobile") and other specialized devices. We also find versions of Linux embedded in the Wireless router that connects a house to the Internet.Google has developed the Android system for phones and is working on the ChromeOS. Up to this point, an embedded OS as been limited to small devices with small or no screen, while desktop and laptop computers run a real OS. These systems hide the operating system and expose an API into which you can plug applicaton programs. In many cases the application programs have to be approved by a central authority that can scan them for malware.
An alternate version of the same model occurs with game consoles. The Xbox 360 or PS/3 play games, but you can also view streaming Netflix movies, browse facebook, or voice chat. It is potentially the non-portable, compute intensive version of the consumer electronic kernel device to handle bigger tasks.
The embedded operating system has limitations, many of which can be overcome by emerging network services that are commonly referred to as "cloud" computing. If a central internet service will store your E-Mail and calendar and provide storage and sharing for your pictures and papers, then the limitations of a small locked-down device are not so important. All you need is the ubiquitous connectivity provided by a cell phone data contract.
Google is completely in the Android+Chrome+Cloud camp.
Microsoft is deeply committed to the full operating system model with Windows and Office. It has its Mobile+CE and XBox lines, but they are separate developments segregated from the desktop/laptop revenue source.
Apple has been split. It continues to sell expensive full function Mac devices with a full operating system, but it is also a consumer electronics company selling embedded software in the iPod Touch and iPhone. It makes enough money on the consumer electronics side to treat the two sides as balanced.
Into this balance Apple introduces the iPad. It has a big enough screen and functions that challenge the low end of the full function computer application market, but it runs an embedded consumer electronics OS kernel without all the configuration, maintenance, and exposures. The iPad itself has not been so well recevied that it will change the balance of power in the industry, but Apple is not known to give up. The history of this industry is that little things grow to be bigger and more powerful.
Since consumers do not really use or benefit from a "real" operating system with all its options and complexity, it may be that the low cost consumer electronics model of delivering function will prove more attractive than the current complex, virus ridden collection of high end products. Google is certainly committed to this view, and now Apple slides one notch closer to them.
For decades, every company has wanted to be "the next Microsoft." However, Microsoft has proven adept at incorporating new technologies and meeting shifts in customer demand. The rise and fall of Netscape testify to the danger of underestimating Microsoft's ability to adapt. However, Microsoft's revenue model is currently centered on the "big OS" product line, and they would find it hard to embrace "smaller, simpler software" without a substantial drop in earnings. They may resist jumping on this bandwagen.
Which brings me back to SILT. The vision of SHARE in the early ’70s may finally come true forty years later (well maybe fifty years later allowing for transition time). Consumer electronics kernels could replace the general purpose computer OS for end users. The laptop becomes more like an iPod and less like a traditional computer. Microsoft becomes more vulnerable, but while Apple is a master of the technology space, there is less profit margin selling a $499 iPad than a $1500 laptop. Change is coming, but much, much later than we predicted it would.