The Absence and Need For a Third Operating System

I am both a sports fan and lover of documentaries. So as a result, I have watched ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 series…multiple times. A moment from one of those documentaries, “Once Brothers” is something that I think rings true about the perception of modern tech and operating systems. In the film, Vlade Divac was reminiscing about his youth as an up and coming basketball players in the war torn region of Yugoslavia in the 1980’s. He mentioned a moment when he first came to the US from his homeland and went to purchase a chocolate bar from the store. The amount of options that were present was astonishing to him, as in Yugoslavia there was basically one kind of chocolate bar and the plethora of options was fascinating to him.

Americans glorify the free market and how options and competition are healthy in business. This love affair with endless competition apparently does know a limit however, when it comes to choice in the operating systems of our tech. In both our smartphones and laptops, we refuse to accept more than two operating systems at this point in time. Any sort of third competitor in either space is seemingly quickly shunned as coming too late to the party or just not having enough features or rather not delivering features in the way that we are used to.

On the desktop, Windows has long been the dominating force. MacOS has made enough progress in recent years to be a worthy number two in terms of market share. But any notion of a third operating system for years has been something that has been dismissed. You are either going to purchase a Windows PC or a Mac. End of story. In the smartphone space, the progress has been more complex but the end result has remained the same. iOS and Android are the dominant forces, and have been for quite some time now. There have been many challengers in this arena: Windows Mobile, Blackberry OS, WebOS, and FireFox OS to name a few. All of these challengers have brought interesting concepts to the table. In most cases, a lot of these concepts were used by the larger duopoly to make their operating systems better.

If you were to use an iPhone or Pixel 4 today, you will find that many of its features were taken from these other operating system. Gesture navigation, card based multitasking, and universal search are all the features that were pioneered by Palm and WebOS. Unified email inbox is a feature that we all enjoy now, originally pioneered by BlackBerry and their Hub software. Lastly, a lot of the photography advancements that we enjoy today were set into motion by Nokia’s Lumia line that was originated on Windows Phone. Yet despite all these operating systems innovating, people have not adapted to using them. The same goes with Chrome OS in today’s desktop climate. The reason? In my estimation, it is a comfort with the norm and a fear of change.

It has always been interesting to me how we all react to products at different points in the product life cycle. When it is still in the growth phase, we will try different ideas and iterations of the product. Yet when the product reaches the maturity phase, we have settled in to what we like and refuse to try out something new. This has become the case with our smartphones and our computers. Anything that veers away from each respective duopoly is immediately rejected. This is why Linux and Chrome OS by extension are maligned as much as they are by the main population, since doing certain tasks might defy the muscle memory that we have built over decades of use. In my estimation, this is also why Windows Phone failed so spectacularly. Particularly in the beginning of that OS, the way it handled notifications and the home screen were so spectacularly different than the grid based setups of iOS and Android.

As time has gone by, this grid based setup has not changed much. While operating systems that tried some different things such as BlackBerry 10 and Windows Mobile have fallen to the wayside because their approaches were too different to catch on, and as a result the app development was limited to non-existent. What does this behavior lead us to? A world where there is minimal competition and piggybacking features from one another.

With all that being said, perhaps this the way that we the American consumer have slowed wild experimentation by technological giants. As a sort of subtle reminder that we are the ones that dictate how things can move forward. If a product is too ambitious and makes us feel uncomfortable we can speak with our wallets and cause that device to ultimately fail. This is the way that we as a consumer buying public can be happy and okay with the development of technology.

The unfortunate part of all of this is that companies are being discouraged from trying new things on both the hardware and software side of things unless a big player in the industry is adopting it. In the West, this means something that Apple or Samsung adopt. Nokia phones did wireless charging for years before Samsung and Apple decided to adopt it. Amazingly, when the Nokia Lumia 920 did it it was a gimmick. When the Galaxy S6 and iPhone 8 did it, it was innovation. Yet there are common notions that we don’t have enough competition. Not enough companies that are pushing the limit.

This has gone to the point of calling different Android skins operating systems. We have gone from having 5 different operating systems options a mere 5 years ago (iOS, Android, Windows Phone, PalmOS, BlackBerry OS) to having two operating systems and calling Samsung’s One UI and OnePlus’s Oxygen OS operating systems. This has grinded competition amongst operating systems to a screeching halt, even more so as so many Android skins now have gone closer and closer to emulating the design aesthetic of the Pixel Experience on Google’s phones.

So we can determine that this outcome is the result of our purchasing decisions over the past decade. The question needs to be asked, why do we need a third option and who would champion that operating system? If you look into the state of overall computing in today’s tech landscape, the most important pillar seems to be the smart home integration. The three players in this current climate seem to be Apple, Google and Amazon. Amazon is the primary target I would say for a third OS. The Echo has been a success, as have the Amazon Fire tablets. Why not complete that with a phone variant and potentially a desktop operating system in the future?

A company like Amazon with its many resources and backbone of e-commerce create an opportunity to be a disrupter. While the Amazon Fire Phone failed spectacularly years ago, the way they have penetrated the tablet market with low cost devices that fill a need show a potential for opportunity to make inroads in the smartphone and desktop worlds. The industry has shown an appetite for a lower cost phone that is functional, this is the business model that has propelled to the success of OnePlus and also the success of the Google Pixel 3a. Consider this possibility. Amazon reworks Fire OS for phones that has built in Alexa, Prime Video and Amazon Music integrations, and costs $500. A new UI that is different to the grid based setup of iOS and Android. I think some people would be willing to give that a look as long as some of the core social media and chat apps were available.

The industry has gotten incredibly stale with larger companies becoming lazy and incredibly iterative. We as a tech using populous is in desperate need of a shakeup. Otherwise, our beloved consumer technology is doomed to go the route of household appliances. Not exciting, but something that is just present and not thought of. Perhaps this is the future that a lot of people are okay with, but if you are a tech enthusiast it sounds like a nightmare. And we are a lot closer to that reality than most people think with this suffocating two system solution unless something changes soon.

Freelance technology and lifestyle writer. Lover of all things with a screen. Newsletter: ozoneletter.substack.com