What’s New With Operating Systems?

In the light of fast-paced changes on the browser front, are users finding that innovation at the desktop has stagnated? Has it? Or is there a lot brewing ‘under the hood’ that we’re just not aware of, yet take for granted as our user experience improves incrementally?


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For most computer users, an operating system is somewhat like the engine under a car’s hood. They know how to start and stop the engine, how to drive around, probably how to check oil levels, but beyond that, the knowledge is limited. With a car, that is okay, since we do not really need to know more unless we are hard-core enthusiasts, or working in the automotive industry.

Getting back to operating systems, the beauty of these ‘engines’ is that they allow users to run their computers and use their favourite applications, while they take care of allocating system resources, handling processes, and so on. Operating systems are far from perfect, but they are remarkable pieces of software for the sheer complexity of tasks that they handle.

We open up the engine and take a look at some of the recent innovations in operating systems.

Splashtop: A fast-booting OS

What do PC users do after they press their PC’s power button?

* Go get a cup of coffee
* Stare at the screen and practice meditation
* Chat with colleagues
* Any of the above

Jokes aside, most of us usually spend minutes waiting for the operating system (OS) to boot up. This is especially frustrating when we need to look up something on the Internet quickly, or just have a few minutes to check personal e-mail.

{quotes}A new operating system called Splashtop allows you to connect to the Internet without booting your main operating system{/quotes}. Splashtop has two components: a core engine that runs out of the BIOS, and an optimised Linux stack that boots rapidly. Splashtop boots out of the BIOS (basic input-output system) on the motherboard of the PC, generally in five seconds or less, according to the website, and provides quick access to certain applications, like the Splashtop Web browser (based on Firefox) and Skype– or offers you the choice of booting your main operating system.

Splashtop is currently available only on ASUS motherboards. When we enquired about how the company plans to make Splashtop available to customers, Andrew Kippen, press and blogger relations manager at DeviceVM (the company that provides Splashtop) revealed, “We spoke about many different ways to release Splashtop, but in the end decided that launching with a partner like ASUS, the world’s largest motherboard manufacturer, was the best way to reach consumers. Splashtop-enabled laptops and desktops will be released later this year.”

Splashtop uses flash memory on the motherboard to store its applications. Could that be a bottleneck? Kippen says, “This is not an issue, since we tailor each version of Splashtop to the manufacturer’s specifications. If there is a size issue, manufacturers can include a larger flash memory chip, or run Splashtop from a partition on the hard drive.”

On issues like vulnerability to attacks and whether it is possible to save attachments or documents, Kippen says, “Like I mentioned earlier, we tailor each version of Splashtop to a manufacturer’s specifications, so [the answer to] your question depends on the manufacturer. On current ASUS products, we allow persistent data (like bookmarks and cookies) to be written to memory. However, users cannot save files, for security reasons.”

Since Splashtop is Linux-based, it is immune to most of the attacks that plague traditional operating systems. Restricting access to memory, whether flash memory or the hard drive, further ensures that Splashtop always works properly.

Speaking on the reasons for the OS’s popularity, Kippen adds, “A major reason for Splashtop’s success is that more and more applications are moving to the Web. Users (excluding business users) spend more time with Web-based e-mail, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and other websites than on any desktop program. Online applications like Google and Zoho are quickly becoming viable options for most Office-like applications.

“We are targeting mass-market consumers, i.e., normal people who just want their computer to work without any wait or fuss. We see ourselves as a good complement to the traditional OS, great for lightweight applications like Web browsing and media playback, but not the right fit if you want to do video editing.”

Splashtop is not the only company in this space. Phoenix Technologies, a company that makes BIOS software, is developing software called Hyperspace that will launch along with the PC’s regular OS. Hyperspace, which is billed as a “compact and secure application environment”, will be able to run applications as well as perform systems maintenance (repair, back-up, recovery, etc) and security. Phoenix expects manufacturers to start offering Hyperspace in the latter half of 2008.