OS - Past, Present, Future

Virtualization of Operating Systems

Anshil Bhansali, Jun 21, 2020

How fortunate are the children growing up today? Being surrounded by various smart devices, growing up in such a connected world can feel like a blessing and a curse. What’s more important is understanding what enabled us to get to this point, and further; Operating Systems.

Operating Systems play one of the most important roles across every single piece of technology, and there have been some major paradigm shifts in that area that have allowed most sci-fi fiction stories to become a reality. From mainframe computers to personal desktops to smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, and a multitude of IoT devices; we can see how the internet revolution and cloud computing era have benefited from the progress and development of operating systems.

In layman’s terms, an Operating System is a program that runs on computer hardware, which essentially manages memory and CPUs (or processing power) in computers, and allows for applications to be run on the computer, so that the user can interact with the computer and perform certain tasks. In the early days, these ‘certain tasks’ could be storing some data in an Excel sheet, where Microsoft Office would be the application running on a Windows OS, but today it could be even uploading a photo on Instagram, an application running on smartphone operating systems.

To name a few of the biggest milestones in the OS era, one of the biggest ones in my opinion was the development of the Graphical User Interface by Xerox in the 1970s. Today we might take the interface for granted, but it was a huge deal, as before that development, the user could only interact with the computer via the Terminal command prompt. Ever since the first GUI was developed, it allowed people to be more creative with their designs and allow more user functionality to come to where we are today; clean, pixel perfect, 3 dimensional interfaces on most of our laptops with extraordinary UI/UX. It’s only a matter of time until we see interfaces use Augmented Reality (Google glasses?) and holographic technologies.

Another huge milestone was, of course, that of the smartphone OS. Apple was definitely not the first smartphone builder, but the success of the iPhone in 2007 enabled a whole new market of applications, mobile applications. The success of the iOS and AndroidOS has allowed for an active application ecosystem; millions of developers around the world are able to build smartphone applications that can reach the end user’s hands instantly. The success of the smartphones also led to special purpose OSs built for the tablets we use today.

Around the same time, another major milestone had an everlasting impact on the world; Virtualization of OS and its conjunction with the Cloud Computing Era. Virtualization of OS’s refers to allowing a user to run a different OS on their host OS on the machine. An example use case of this would be a user testing their application on different OS’s, but the same physical machine. Now, when cloud computing entered, it changed the whole game.

To better have a clear understanding of Virtualization of OS with respect to cloud computing, let's take an example. In the early 2000s, if anyone wanted to start their own website, or tech company, they would need to purchase physical servers to host their applications on the internet. Along with that, you would need experts in hardware to get set up and monitor your application. Today, it is much cheaper and easier to do that as you do not need to buy those physical servers. Companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle, Google provided “virtualized” hardware resources to you, via the “cloud”. AWS is the leader in that space today, with Azure holding a strong 2nd place. These companies own large warehouses where they have racks and racks of physical servers. Customers host their applications on those servers, and pay per usage of CPU and memory resources. This allows people to quickly spin up a new website, and make it available to the public at a smaller cost, and quicker speed.

Some trends that I see today are big movements towards voice and gesture control devices. These IoT devices have custom OSs for its purpose. Alexa, Google assistant and Siri have been incredibly successful due to research and development in natural language processing and artificial intelligence. Take a look at Google’s most recent keynote event where they showed the conversational use of their google assistant. Gesture control has progressed in applications with Augmented Reality and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technologies. DJI’s Spark drone is the first drone in the world that can be controlled by hand gestures. The unveiling of that product was simply revolutionary. The latest buzzword on everyone’s mouth is Blockchain, and I would not be surprised if there was an OS built especially for blockchain systems, since blockchain networks run on hundreds of thousands of machines all over the world. Maybe there will be a special purpose smartphone OS built for blockchain, to run a blockchain network on smart phone devices, as depicted in the TV show “Silicon Valley”. The sky's the limit, and it's only a matter of time until today’s science fiction becomes tomorrow's reality.