What should the operating system of the future look like? Who should be in charge of building it? How can personal computing push past its current limitations? This research explores new and newly refined ideas for what the operating system allows users to do. Reimagining the operating system — not kernels and drivers, but the user environment — is my current research area, and this work is in active development.
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What does the operating system of the future look like? If you were to redesign the OS from scratch, how would it work? What would it do for you?
If your initial answers are anything like mine, they are quite terrible: bad, uninteresting, impossible, or myopic. But once you get the bad ideas out, you make way for the good ideas.
Have you thought about this before? What would your ideal operating system look like?
What would it look like first thing in the morning? Last thing in the evening? Throughout the day?
What would it look like on a laptop? Or on a mobile phone? Or on a drafting board-style computer like the Surface Studio?
What goals would it strive for? How would you design it to build the future of personal computing closer to what you believe to be its best contribution to the human race? How would you design it to get away from what you believe is wrong about today’s operating systems and the companies that make them?
The questions are many but they all get down to one extremely interesting core:
To you, what is the joy of computing?
Right? That is what is at stake here. How does the current world support the joy of computing for you? How does the current world detract from it? In an ideal world, how do you envision the joy of computing reified? Can that ideal vision exist in today’s world?
Article was published on October 15, 2020 and last updated on January 24, 2020.
The pioneers’ vision
“The computer is a medium!” Alan Kay — one of the forefathers of personal computing — wrote this about a realization he had in the late 1980s. “I had always thought of it as a tool, perhaps a vehicle — a much weaker conception. What McLuhan was saying is that if the personal computer is a truly new medium then the very use of it would actually change the thought patterns of an entire civilization.”
The titans who envisioned and birthed personal computing decades ago had a vision for how it would contribute to humanity. It is most tangibly communicated in Steve Jobs’ now famous metaphor:
“I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good.
“But then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.
“And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”
This vision of the personal computer as a companion for advancing human thought, human capability; where does it stand? How have we done in the last 30 years?
In some regards, extraordinarily well.
In others, you could argue the potential is left mostly unfulfilled.
Expanding human capacity
With software as the medium, we do a great deal of our thinking, creating, and collaborating; we conduct our life’s work.
This entire medium — from the user environment of the operating system to the various applications we use within it — is our digital companion in the best of our efforts.
If this medium could be meaningfully improved, the potential impact would be huge. It would mean being able to expand human capacity to think, create, collaborate, and do — in all of humanity’s best endeavors.
It would mean installing a gearbox onto the bicycle for the mind, and being able to kick into a higher gear.
This is the primary aim of my research into the future of personal computing.
Much of this research will revolve around new and renewed ideas for the user environment of the operating system of the future. We will also explore how software is built, the business of software development, and a few other related topics.
Today’s operating systems do not support the best for the user; usability tends to fall prey to other priorities. Your — supposedly personal — computer must be constantly reconfigured to be supportive of your best work. Though often unintentionally, most software we use today is actively detrimental to the plight.
Doug Englebart was prophetic in his work, and knew what personal computers could be capable of when he sought to “augment human intellect.” Many of his designs and inventions form the underpinnings of personal computing as we know it today.
Yet much of what he envisioned for personal computing remains unfulfilled. He feared as much in 1995 when he said of his team’s incredible visions for personal computing that “these architectures are too important to allow their evolution to be dominated by simple, vendor-customer market forces.”
Prophetic, too, was this fear — we have indeed seen this limitation on the full potential of the ideas he and many of the early pioneers saw in personal computing.
My work aims to realize many of these unfulfilled intentions for modern users.
Put very simply: We push much of our thinking out into our computers so that we can think about more things.
Naturally, better systems used for this task present a wild opportunity; since we fill our software with our own things, our own thinking, our own plans, and so on, better software has the opportunity to transform and open up our thinking on the stuff that matters most to each of us.
A series of thoughtful concepts can help open your mind to your own thoughts — when you’re developing them, reflecting on them, connecting them, or organizing them. That is not a small thing: Better concepts can open your mind to your own thinking.
The premise is simple:
If there is a better way our personal computers could work — a way that would meaningfully expand the human capacity to think, create, collaborate, and do — then discovering and building that better way would improve society tremendously.
This is my current area of research. I do not purport to have all the answers, but I am armed with questions, and a few promising approaches for answering those questions.
Introduction to the research
Envisioning the ideal operating system will not be done in a vacuum, requiring a fictitious world to work well. In my core work, I find the deepest insights come from working in both abstract and application. My prior work in email did not supplant “ideal email” into the world, but found ways to build it within today’s protocols. Similarly, this research will involve figuring out how to engineer, and potentially deliver, its best ideas.
In fact, beyond the ideas and designs, this work has already involved building a number of prototypes on different software stacks.
It has also led to Symphonies, a testbed for some of the ideas as they are developed.
The aim of this research is to discern a compelling vision for computing that supports the improvement of the human condition; one that helps to further reify the ‘bicycle for the mind’.
How can personal computing be so improved that we can fulfill its promise of expanding human ability? This is ultimately the question I am exploring, in search of which paths don’t have answers and need to be cut, and which paths yield surprising results and need to be explored further.
Through the process, I will share an ongoing stream of thinking and creating: the ideas, thoughts, designs, and research in process, along with the products spun off of the core research.
We will dive into depths beyond the future of the operating system itself, but also the future of email, of software development, and a myriad of other related topics. We will explore ideas and designs for software that doesn’t yet exist – but might. And we will experiment with many of these ideas as they find their way into Symphonies.
What we find will be published for the public good. What we learn I will use in the products I create. And the primary goal is clear: to help discover, discern, and construct a meaningful, shared vision for the future of computing.
For many years, control over that vision has remained in the hands of a seldom, resourced few. But what made computing great from the start, what made the World Wide Web great from the start, and what has always made indie software great: these were not directed by any single entity; these were ultimately constructed by many, each with their own contributions, each with their own strong ideas. What resulted in ‘personal computing’ as we know it is a beautiful conglomeration of some of the best ideas put forward by the community at large.
This research aims to carry on that great tradition by contributing; as a part of that community, contributing back into that community, for the sake of what we believe about the role personal computing can have in our futures.
My work has always been made possible only by the community: from its roots with crowdfunding on Kickstarter, sustained by community-aggregated news rather than marketing, through today with community-supported products. This research aims to be no different in that regard.
Join me in this thought experiment: Come along just to enjoy the ride, or even to help unfold some of the clues along the way.
The kinds of questions this research aims to address:
How can the OS of the future expand human ability to think, create, collaborate, and do? How can the operating system be improved to bring an order of magnitude or more of change to what they enable people to do?
How can the OS of the future balance context and periphery with focus and flow? How can the OS of the future help us with deep work? How can the OS of the future allow us to have what we want in our periphery to guide and motivate our work (akin to a current book sitting on the desk)? And how can the OS of the future balance these two?
How can the OS of the future be more respectful of our humanity, our time, our desire to focus, our need to relax, or our openness to spontaneity? How can it allow us to stay centered in the mornings and evenings?
How can the OS of the future be more respectful of the intentions of its users, rather than those of its (or apps’) creators? Advertisements in push notifications and prompts to upgrade to vendors’ services in primary OS menus are both evidence of a more deeply rooted problem.
How can the OS of the future help us become better people? Better versions of ourselves, whomever we strive to be? Better at what we do? And how can the OS of the future work to avoid distracting us from that progress?
Who should be building the OS of the future, and how should its business be run? There is lots to unpack here, and this will be one of the primary focuses within this research.
Are files and folders the best storage mechanism? Likely not — but what is? And if a user’s data is synchronized to servers they don’t own, how can privacy be absolutely / technologically guaranteed?
How can security be balanced with openness? If I own a computer, I should be able to install and run any software I own without anyone’s permission. Or as a developer, I should be able to develop any non-malicious software I want for the platform, I should be able to run it on my machine without anyone’s permission, and I should be able to distribute it to users in a manner of my choosing: independently through my own mechanism, or on a platform of someone else’s creation. What security models could exist to safely enable this ownership?
How can the OS of the future support a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem that works well for developers and consumers? Who should be in charge of how that ecosystem works?
I do have a fairly big stretch goal for this research: hardware.
Speaking of Alan Kay and Steve Jobs, while introducing the iPhone in 2007, Jobs quoted Kay:
‘People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.’ You know, Alan said this 30 years ago, and this is how we feel about it. And so we’re bringing breakthrough software to a mobile device for the first time.
This thought process came naturally to me as well: A year into exploring and expanding my vision for the future of the operating system, I could not keep myself from tinkering with the hardware it would run on. Our personal computers today come in just a couple of well-defined arrangements, but our technology allows for so much more.
Mindsense One is the code name in my research notes for the computer which would be a prototype personal computer of the future, running the prototype of the operating system envisioned through this research. This is my stretch goal: to work up towards building and open sourcing an inexpensive, meaningful kit for the first-class personal computer that best connects us to the prototypes of the future OS. It is a longer-term goal, but with enough support from the community, one we could drive after in earnest.
This research is currently in progress.
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