For years, the terms used by the common consumer to evaluate, brag about, and describe new computers were things like RAM and processor speed. The higher the numbers, the better. We don’t hear much about these things anymore. They’ve become irrelevant. Even the cheapest computers today are plenty capable of doing anything the average computer user throws at them.

Having 4 GB or 8 GB of RAM really doesn’t matter to most people anymore. The performance difference is imperceptible.

A new bragging metric is emerging, however.

Going forward, I think people will increasingly value how quickly devices come on – whether starting up cold or awaking from sleep. This will happen as people continue to view smartphones as replacements for desktops and laptops. “Large screen” devices will either be used a lot less in the future, or they will have to catch up to the mobile world.

There is still a definite separation of these two worlds, however. While Mac and Linux users have enjoyed fast startup times for years, the average person has never experienced this. Most people use PCs. As such, most people still accept that their phone comes on almost instantly while their PCs do not.

In a way, it’s really interesting that people implicitly accept this double standard. Newer smartphones have the same specifications that higher-end PCs did just a few years ago. In other words, modern smartphones are as powerful as PCs were just a few years ago, but they come on instantly, while older PCs never did. PC users have just been trained to accept that a device with a big screen takes a few minutes to come on, while a device with a small screen should come on immediately.

Enter the iPad

Many people view the iPad as an “in between” device, but I think of it as a “bridge” device. It’s basically a conduit through which mobile operating systems will travel to large screen computing. Big screen no longer means sluggish thanks to the iPad.

As the iPad and devices like it gain traction, consumers will have less tolerance for slow startup times. I think this will happen very fast in the next few years.

People will begin to expect all devices to come on instantly, not just phones. Call it the Apple “home button effect.” Press a single button, and your whole digital world is on, at your service. There is absolutely not a single second of waiting for an OS to initialize. You don’t even have to watch meaningless mumbo jumbo rain down a Dos-like screen. And once you see your apps, you can actually use them. There is no waiting period while the system grinds away on startup apps.

You need it, and it’s there. Immediately.

Hybrid is the future

How and when will this transition from slow-to-start-up PCs to instant-on PCs happen?

A recent Computerworld article speculates that HP may be planning a whole new type of personal computer using HyperSpace, a Linux-based system that boots in 30 seconds.

HyperSpace, probably under a new name, will show up on all HP laptops, netbooks, and desktops. But it won’t be as the primary operating system. That will still be Windows. Instead, HyperSpace will be the instant-on options for all its PC lines. I also see them working on improving virtualization integration between Linux and Windows to make using them together as transparent as possible. In HP’s ideal world, users won’t know whether they’re using Linux or Windows, they’ll just know they’re using HP. The end result will be that by 2011, everything HP sells will have Linux hidden inside it somewhere.

I find this remarkably innovative. And I could totally see it happening.

The reason I find this so interesting is that, for the first time, it provides a plausible scenario for the exit of Microsoft Windows as the primary OS of the common consumer. We may be at the beginning of a marked cultural shift in computer use.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Microsoft has an innovation crisis that threatens its future. But it’s not like Windows is going to just disappear overnight. And it’s not like consumers are going to begin switching to Macs, Ubuntu, or other operating systems en masse.

The prospect of “hybrid” operating systems, however, provides promise for increased usability, security, and value to consumers while also ramping up the threat of an inevitable Windows demise.

HP isn’t the only PC-maker that wants in on the instant-on action. Dell is also talking to Google about Chromium, another instant-on system based on Google’s lightening fast Chrome browser.


I’m not just trying to go off on Microsoft here. I think Windows will get better, but barring a major overhaul in both design and price, it will slowly and surely be relegated to more niche computing. Let’s face it. Most people check email, Facebook, and surf the web. They don’t need the power Windows offers. It’s overkill for day-to-day usage.

Johnny Emailer has no idea what a “hybrid OS” is or what virtualization means, but he doesn’t need to. What he will know is that if he presses this button, his email and web browser come on really fast. That’s because they’re running in some version of Linux in the background.

He knows that if needs to run Excel, he can do that too by pressing this other button, which opens it in Windows. It takes longer to open, but that’s okay because he doesn’t need to do that as often.

Over time, he realizes that he can actually do most of what he does in Excel using faster tools in his web browser (maybe Google Docs). Or maybe they’re not even in something that looks like a web browser. Maybe they’re just another app because HP or Dell put a version of Android on the laptop.

I have little doubt that we’ll see a flood of these instant-on operating systems hit the market in the next few years. People will increasingly use these lighter, faster OSes for web surfing and routine computing tasks. Windows will run separately and be reserved for heavier lifting with Excel, etc. For many, it may not run at all.

Steve Jobs is definitely right about mobile being the future. Twenty years from now, we may see that Windows was just a momentary diversion, and ultimately Linux/Unix systems found their way back to dominance via the mobile OS, which bled into the stationary OS. Or more likely, the whole concept of a stationary OS will be abandoned.