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