Platform Agnostic Life is Finally a Reality

If you follow me on Twitter or Google+ you have doubtlessly seen me link to this recent XKCD comic:

© xkcd.com (click for original)

Back when I was in college, this was my big dream. This was how I wanted future to turn out – I wanted it to be a place where it did not matter what operating system you were running. It finally happened, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed if Randall Munroe haven’t pointed it out in his comic.

Then again, I have been living a platform agnostic lifestyle for years now. For the longest time now, my philosophy always was to never put all my eggs in a single basket. I use Windows on my gaming PC, Linux on all my servers and my work computer and OSX on my primary laptop. They all work great, they all have things I like about them, and they all suck in certain aspects. I’m used to jumping between different platforms, so I have barely noticed that living this way got so much easier these days.

For example, I have noticed that my working environment is almost identical on every single platform. I use Chrome and/or Firefox for web browsing, Vim as the main text editor, VLC to watch movies, Dropbox to sync up files between computers and Eclipse for heavy duty Java coding. Everything else is either web based, or just specific to managing given platform and irrelevant in the grand scheme (for example Windows needs 3rd party tools to handle SSH sessions and SFTP file transfers). I would say that for roughly 90% of my regular day to day tasks it is completely irrelevant what OS is actually running underneath my favorite applications.

Sure, there is still software that is directly tied to specific platforms. There is no supported way to run Photoshop or Microsoft Office on Linux or Unix. There do exist alternatives though: Gimp and Open Office are not perfect, but good enough for most people under most circumstances. Note how this works though. What do the “problem” applications that are not 100% cross-platform have in common? They are relatively expensive and proprietary. Their replacements on the less popular platforms are free open source applications that more or less mirror their functionality. The only reason why the expensive apps are still relevant is good marketing. Most people simply think that you can’t do business without Microsoft Office, and you can’t be a graphic designer without plonking money down on the Adobe suite. This is simply not true. If you were really determined you could still be successful without these proprietary tools. But, since everyone else is using them, and you are likely going to collaborate with others, the network effect kicks in.

Still, the Open Source movement did a lot to create this platform agnostic environment we currently live in. If it wasn’t for ambitious projects such as Mozilla Firefox, most people would still be stuck using IE6. Do you really think Microsoft would have ever update their browser if they didn’t feel threatened by Mozilla, and Google rolling out competing products unimaginably more advanced than theirs? I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t.

The popularization of modern open source browsers with good standards support, spurred web designers to create more dynamic, user friendly web interfaces – like webmail that did not suck. And they did it completely bypassing Microsoft’s proprietary extensions such as ActiveX. Microsoft had to either to step up or drop out of the game. They chose the former, and inadvertently helped to create a world in which most students no longer need to purchase Microsoft Office suite to do their homeworks. These days all they need is a web browser and a free Google account.

Regardless how you feel about Apple, they did their part too. They revolutionized the mobile device market, and changed the way we access the web. Back in the day most web portals and online stores could safely ignore everything that was not IE. In our increasingly more mobile market, ignoring browsers such as Safari and it’s mobile cousin is no longer an option. Too many people use macs, too many people buy stuff via mobile devices. Too many clueless people have been trained by computer geeks like us to use alternative browsers like Firefox or Chrome. Despite Microsoft’s attempts to “embrace and extend” the web, the market has moved towards open standards, and cross platform designs.

This is something that makes me very happy. Instead of one scary, monolithic software overlord dictating all the rules we are moving towards a heterogeneous mix of various platforms, all using a common UI abstraction: namely the web. And the more stuff we push to the web, the less relevant it will be what exactly is running under your hood. Hell, we are actually killing two birds with one stone. Moving onto the cloud also means getting away from proprietary file formats which is a clear win for us end users.

You see, big cloud services do not need to lock your files in cryptic binary containers. Companies like Microsoft did this, because they needed to lock you into their platform. If they made it virtually impossible to export your files to a different format, it almost guaranteed them that you would continue buying their products. Cloud service providers do not need to lock your files. They already have you locked in – you are hosting your files on their server, aren’t you? They more or less own your files, they can mine them for marketing data and they can hold them hostage if you happen to break their terms of service.

And therein lies the dark side of this brave new world we are currently creating. On one hand we are getting liberated from greedy, oppressive software moguls, but on the other hand we are willingly and cheerfully dumping all our data into open maws of privacy devouring monstrosities lurking in the clouds. The good thing is that we already noticed that. The new bogymen whose exploits are dominating the technology news sites are not proprietary software giants, but insatiable infovores such as Google and Facebook. In the coming decade we will make our stand in the courts of law and either win back our privacy, or forfeit it entirely. Either way it will be interesting.

Are you platform agnostic? Do you run multiple OS’s right now? If yes, how does your experience compare to mine? Let me know in the comments.

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11 Responses to Platform Agnostic Life is Finally a Reality

  1. Victoria Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    I run Windows 7 on my home PC, office environment is microsoftized to the max, but I mostly use my Macbook Air with Lion for work and other-than-work activities. I use Firefox and Dropbox everywhere :)

    Must say, I prefer Mac apps for coding (Coda and Textmate), I cannot bear Vim because I’m allergic to text commands since DOS.

    There’s one program that I’m seriously lacking on Mac – I got too used to Xara, and none of the small and pretty Mac vector apps cover it. Adobe Illustrator is too monstrous for my taste. So that’s my woe.

    I do like the cloud services but due to the fact that our Internet connection sucks quite often, they are not reliable. Our office WiFi doesn’t cover my desk by 10 meters – and voila, no services for me at all.

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  2. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m pretty much Windows-ified, because of my constant need to play games on every platform imaginable. I used to have a MacBook, but my brother wanted one for his school use, so I gave that away. I used to have an iPhone and iPad too, which I’ve sold off to make way for an Android. Still finding a nice tablet replacement (currently joining the TouchPad craze).

    I used to rock Ubuntu at work, but my development and test environment requires Windows, since my team predominently does Windows work. But I persisted with , Ubuntu and Vmware Player as I couldn’t stand the default Windows XP that I was supposed to use. A few months ago, I discovered that Windows 7 has been approved for use and I promptly switched to it.

    It’s not that I’m a Windows person or anything, but my work life (Windows dev env) and personal life (gaming) basically warrants Windows to be in my life. Luckily, 7 does not suck as hard as XP/Vista did (yes, I hated XP).

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  3. icebrain PORTUGAL Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    To me it’s the opposite – since I started using Linux as my primary OS (around 3 ½ years from now), I’ve gotten so used to the niceness that is using a proper shell that returning to Windows, CMD.EXE and its lack of shell programs is a pain. Another problem is my current dependence on virtual desktops and tilling WMs.

    I still use Windows, but keeping a Putty window to my Linux machine is indispensable for my well being, unless I’m gaming.

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  4. Phil UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Victoria:
    Have you tried Inkscape instead of Adobe Illustrator?

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  5. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Windows on my desktop, Ubuntu on my old and underpowered laptop (which was like a breath of fresh air at first, but has since gotten a bit heavy for the poor thing, might need to find myself a new distro at some point, or just buy a new one)

    But in terms of the software I use, doesn’t really matter which OS I’m on – Firefox, VLC, GIMP, OpenOffice. Gotta love the open source world. MSN vs Pidgin isn’t too much of a difference, nor is there much to tell between the Skype clients. Would be nice if Foobar2000 ran natively on Linux, but it runs happily under WINE.

    Only thing I really miss on Linux is a mid-weight image editor; there are mimics of MSPaint (although I’m yet to find one of those I like much) or there’s the somewhat more bloaty GIMP, but on Windows I quite like Paint.NET, which won’t run on Linux.

    Basically just waiting for Steam and the games I play to play nicely, either natively or with WINE; that’s the main reason I keep Windows around. Well, that and the fact that my storage is currently a li’l bit locked into their Dynamic Disks system for RAID, but that could be changed.

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  6. Scott UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    My family has a mishmash of XP (kid’s computer), Win7 (wife’s and 1 other laptop), Archlinux(1 laptop, 1 desktop and 1 server), 1 iPhone, and 2 android phones. I finally setup everyone with their own Samba share on the server so I don’t have to try and manage backing up 4-7 different machines. I told everyone to save their stuff to the server or it doesn’t get backed up. I also moved all our media (pictures and music) to the server so I’m not trying to keep 70+GB of music and pictures synchronized between several machines. So far so good, but it’s only been a couple weeks so far.

    My wife and I use Dropbox to share files back and forth. I have a keepass database in the dropbox folder so I can use it on any of our machines if I need to. Haven’t been able to convert my wife to using keepass yet…she still calls and asks for passwords :)

    The hardest part of the samba share is getting everyone’s permissions right so only the adults can alter media files, but kids can still view them, and when my wife uploads a picture, it has the right permissions so that I can alter it later on. Ugh!! I’m still not sure it’s 100% yet. I’d also like to upgrade our network to ‘N’ wireless and gigabit wired to make the ‘local cloud’ media browsing a little more snappy….but that’s not particularly cheap.

    We all use libreoffice and either winamp or clementine for ipod management. The iphone is new so I may have to put itunes on one machine…haven’t tested the iphone with winamp & clementine yet.

    But the kids can move pretty comfortably between platforms because like you said…firefox/chrome, libreoffice and clementine all look the same no matter what machine you’re on!

    Scott

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  7. Jereme Kramer UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    I’m somewhat an oddity in that I triple boot my MacBook. I’ve found that I primarily use Fedora, but I switch between OS’s fairly freely. I’d have to say that my workflow varies between OS’s quite a bit because I use them for entirely different reasons. Certainly my browsing is all the same — Google does a good job of keeping my settings neat across platforms — but that’s the only similarity. If I’m in Windows, its because I need something Windows specific like CAD, games, or some Excel extension. OS X is primarily used for managing music, videos, and photos (I rather like Time Machine backups) and sharing said things easily with other Mac users.

    Although I’m using my Chromebook more and more frequently, there are a number of improvements to be made to cloud apps before entirely living on the web is possible. While Google docs is adequate for basic paper writing, the spreadsheet and slide presentation aspects need a great deal of work before they reach parity with any of the popular desktop office suites. There’s also not yet good web support for LaTeX — there are a few projects getting going, but nothing I’ve found has been usable. If Google ever finishes “chromoting,” though, all of this will be irrelevant.

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  8. Victoria Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    @ Phil:

    I did. First thing, actually :) It reminded me of my CorelDRAW days very much but it feels kind of unbalanced, workable but not pretty. And it also requires X11.

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  9. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Well, I use quite a number of operating systems. I’ve got Arch on my desktop, Gentoo on my server, FreeBSD on my NAS, Ubuntu on my laptap, and at work everything runs on Solaris. I think it’s a pretty nifty setup. Now I’m not sure what these ‘OSx’ or ‘Windows’ things of which you all speak are, but I’m sure they’re pretty neat too.

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  10. MrJones GERMANY Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6 forever!

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  11. Ron NEW ZEALAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Im mainly a linux guy myself. ArchLinux on my main computer. Arch also on my VPS. Home server is debian. Labs at Uni are CentOS (there are Windows machines too, but I havnt used them). Windows for the rare occasion I play games. And an android phone.

    I dont really like cloud apps myself (im a console and emacs junkie thou). Im very controlled on what I do put on facebook/twitter/plus, I keep a local copy of my email. Google calander and reader are about the only web-apps I use often. Calander the sync is pretty important to me (labs and phone). And for RSS I need to be online anyway and it does a pretty good job.

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