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Mobile OS Paradigm

Cycle of nature of work, capabilities of tools, architecture of platform.

Cycle of nature of work, capabilities of tools, architecture of platform.

Are tablets the next big thing, a saturated market (already), dead (!), or just in a lull? The debate continues while the sales of tablets continue to outpace laptops and will soon overtake all PCs (of all form factors and OS). What is really going on is an architectural transformation—the architecture that defined the PC is being eclipsed by the mobile OS architecture.

The controversy of this dynamic rests with the disruptive nature—the things that were easy to do with a PC architecture that are hard or impossible to do with a mobile OS, as well as the things in a mobile OS that make traditional PCs seem much easier. Legacy app compatibility, software required for whole professions, input preferences, peripherals, and more are all part of this. All of these are also rapidly changing as software evolves, scenarios adapt, and with that what is really important changes.

Previous posts have discussed the changing nature of work and the new capabilities of tools. This post details the architecture of the platform. Together these three form an innovation cycle—each feeding into and from each other, driving the overall change in the computing landscape we see today.

The fundamental shift in the OS is really key to all of this. For all the discussed negatives the mobile OS architecture brings to the near term, it is also an essential and inescapable transition. Often during these transitions we focus in the near term on the visible differences and miss the underlying nature of the change.

During the transition from mini to PC, the low price and low performance created a price/performance gap that the minis thought they would exploit. Yet the scale volume, architectural openness, and rapid improvement in multi-vendor tools (and more) contributed to a rapid acceleration that could not compare.

During the transition from character-based to GUI-based PCs many focused on the expense of extra peripherals such as graphics cards and mice, requirement for more memory and MIPs, not to mention the performance implications of the new interface in terms of training and productivity. Yet, Moore’s law, far more robust peripheral support (printers and drivers), and ability to draw on multi-app scenarios (clipboard and more) transformed computing in ways character-based could not.

The same could be said about the transition to internetworking with browsers. The point is that the ancillary benefits of these architectural transitions are often overlooked while the dialog primarily focuses on the immediate and visible changes in the platform and experience. Sometimes the changes are mitigated over time (i.e. adding keyboard shortcuts to GUI or the evolution of the PC to long file names and real multi-tasking and virtual memory). Other times the changes become the new paradigm as new customers and new scenarios dominate (i.e. mouse, color, networking).

The transition to the mobile OS platforms is following this same pattern. For all the debates about touch versus keyboard, screen-size, vertical integration, or full-screen apps, there are fundamental shifts in the underlying implementation of the operating system that are here to stay and have transformed computing.

We are fortunate during this transition because we first experienced this with phones that we all love and use (more than any other device) so the changes are less of a disconnect with existing behavior, but that doesn’t reduce the challenge for some or even the debate.

Mobile OS paradigm

The mobile OS as defined by Android, iOS, Windows RT, Chrome OS, Windows Phone, and others is a very different architecture from the PC as envisioned by Windows 7/8, Mac OS X, Linux desktop. The paradigm includes a number of key innovations that when taken together define the new paradigm.

  1. ARM. ARM architecture for mobile provides a different view of the “processor”: SoC, multi-vendor, simpler, lower power consumption, fanless, rich graphics, connectivity, sensors, and more. All of these are packaged in a much lower cost way. I am decidedly not singling out Intel/AMD about this change, but the product is fundamentally different than even Intel’s SoCs and business approach. ARM is also incompatible with x86 instructions which means, even virtualized, the existing base of software does not run, which turns out to be an asset during this change (the way OS/360 and VMS didn’t run on PCs).
  2. Security. At the heart of mobile is a more secure platform. It is not more secure because there are few pointers in the implementation or fewer APIs, but more secure because apps run with a different notion of what they can/cannot do and there is simply no way to get apps on the device that can violate those rules (other than for developers of course). There’s a full kernel there but you cannot just write your own kernel mode drivers to do whatever you want. Security is a race of course and so more socially engineered, password stealing, packet sniffing, phone home evil apps will no doubt make their way to mobile but you won’t see drive by buffer overrun attacks take over your device, keystroke loggers, or apps that steal other apps’ data.
  3. Quality over time and telemetry. We are all familiar with the way PCs (and to a lesser but non-zero degree Macs) decay over time or get into states where only a reformat or re-imaging will do. Fragility of the PC architecture in this regard is directly correlated with the openness and so very hard to defend against, even among the most diligent enthusiasts (myself included). The mobile OS is designed from the ground up with a level of isolation between the OS and apps and between apps that all but guarantee the device will continue to run and perform the way it did on the first day. When performance does take a turn for the worse, there’s ongoing telemetry that can easily point to the errant/causal app and removing it returns things to that baseline level of excellence.
  4. App store model. The app store model provides for both a full catalog of apps easily searched and a known/reviewed source of apps that adhere to some (vendor-specified) level of standards. While vendors are taking different approaches to the level of consistency and enforcement, it is fair to say this approach offers so many advantages. Even in the event of a failure of the review/approval process, apps can be revoked if they prove to be malicious in intent or fixed if there was an engineering mistake. In addition, the centralized reviews provide a level of app telemetry that has previously not existed. For developers and consumers, the uniform terms and licensing of apps and business models are significant improvements (though they come with changes in how things operate).
  5. All day battery life. All day battery life has been a goal of devices since the first portable/battery PCs. The power draw of x86 chipsets (including controllers and memory), the reliability challenges of standby power cycles, and more have made this incredibly difficult to reliably “add on” to the open PC architecture. Because of the need for device drivers, security software, and more the likelihood that a single install or peripheral will dramatically change the power profile of a traditional device is commonplace. The “closed” nature of a mobile OS along with the process/app model make it possible to have all day battery life regardless of what is thrown at it.
  6. Always connected. A modern mobile OS is designed to be always connected to a variety of networks, most importantly the WWAN. This is a capability from the chipset through the OS. This connectivity is not just an alternative for networking, but built into the assumptions of the networking stack, the process model, the app model, and the user model. It is ironic that the PC architecture which had optional connectivity is still less good at dealing with intermittent connectivity than mobile which has always been less consistent than LAN or wifi. The need to handle the constant change in connectivity drove a different architecture. In addition, the ability to run with essentially no power draw and screen off while “waking up” instantly for inbound traffic is a core capability.
  7. Always up to date apps/OS. Today’s PC OSes all have updaters and connectivity to repositories from their vendors, but from the start the modern mobile OS is designed to be constantly updated at both the app and OS from one central location (even if the two updates are handled differently). We are in a little bit of an intermediate state because on PCs there are some apps (like Chrome and Firefox, and security patches on Windows) that update without prompts by default yet on mobile we still see some notifications for action. I suspect in short order we will see uniform and seamless, but transparent, updates.
  8. Cloud-centric/stateless. For decades people have had all sorts of tricks to try to maintain a stateless PC: the “M” drive, data drives or partitions, roaming profiles, boot from server, VM or VDI, even routine re-imaging, etc. None of these worked reliably and all had the same core problem, which was that whatever could go wrong if you weren’t running them could still go wrong and then you’re one good copy was broken everywhere. The mobile OS is designed from the start to have state and data in the cloud and given the isolation, separation, and kernel architecture you can reliably restore your device often in minutes.
  9. Touch. Touch is the clearly the most visible and most challenging transition. Designing the core of the OS and app model for touch first but with support for keyboards has fundamentally altered the nature of how we expect to interact with devices. No one can dispute that for existing workloads on existing software that mouse and keyboard are superior and will remain so (just as we saw in the transition from mainframe to mini, CUI to GUI, client/server to web, etc.) However, as the base of software and users grows, the reality is that things will change—work will change, apps will change, and thus work products will change, such that touch-first will continue to rise. My vote is that the modern “laptop” for business will continue to be large screen tablets with keyboards (just as the original iPad indicated). The above value propositions matter even more to todays mobile information worker as evidenced by the typical airport waiting area or hotel lobby lounge. I remain certain that innovation will continue to fill in the holes that currently exist in the mobile OS and tablets when it comes to keyboards. Software will continue to evolve and change the nature of precision pointing making it only something you need for PC only scenarios.
  10. Enterprise management. Even in the most tightly managed environment, the business PC demonstrates the challenges of the architecture. Enterprise control on a mobile OS is designed to be a state management system, not a compute based approach. When you use a managed mobile device, enterprise management is about controlling access to the device and some set of capabilities (policies), but not about running arbitrary code and consuming arbitrary system resources. The notion that you might type your PIN or password to your mobile device and initiate a full scan of your storage and install an arbitrary amount of software before you can answer a call is not something we will see on a modern mobile OS. So many of the previous items in the list have been seen as challenges by enterprise IT and somewhat ironically the tools developed to diagnose and mitigate them have only deepened the challenges for the PC. With mobile storage deeply encrypted, VPN access to enterprise resources, and cloud data that never lands on your device there are new ways to think of “device management”.

Each of these are fundamental to the shift to the mobile OS. Many other platform features are also significantly improved such as accessibility, global language support, even the clipboard and printing.

What is important about these is how much of a break from the traditional PC model they are. It isn’t any one of these as much as the sum total that one must look at in terms of the transition.

Once one internalizes all these moving parts, it becomes clear why the emphasis on the newly architected OS and the break from past software and hardware is essential to deliver the benefits. These benefits are now what has come to be expected from a computing device.

While a person new to computing this year might totally understand a large screen device with a keyboard for some tasks, it is not likely that it would make much sense to have to reboot, re-image, or edit the registry to remove malware, or why a device goes from x hours of battery life to 1/2 x hours just because some new app was installed. At some point the base expectations of a device change.

The mobile OS platforms we see today represent a new paradigm. This new paradigm is why you can have a super computer in your pocket or access to millions of apps that together “just work”.

–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)


Written by Steven Sinofsky

August 12, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Tablets v. the World

Every time the topic of tablets versus laptops (and or smartphones) comes up, we end up in another endless debate about scenarios, consumption, productivity, keyboards, mice, screen size, multitasking, and more. In every case the debate centers around the core uses of “PCs” today—and PC is in quotes because the PC itself is a remarkably flexible device that has morphed over the years into many form factors. People study run-rates and trends and try to predict the demise of one over another and so on.

It isn’t so simple.  But it also isn’t so binary.

For more on this dialog, you can also catch a couple of podcasts from Benedict Evans and I (see a16z Podcast: Engineering a Revolution at Work and a16z Podcast: When Your PC Expires).


Every disruptive innovation shares (at least) two characteristics.  First, the newly introduced technology is more often than not inferior in some key dimensions, while superior in some dimensions that in the current context seem to matter more.  Second, despite much consternation, the technology being disrupted is almost certainly going to remain a vital part of the landscape in some form or another for quite some time—either simply because of the long tail of legacy or because it serves a function that is not replicated at all.

What changes, however, is where the emphasis takes place around an ecosystem and with a, usually, broader set of customers. The ecosystem is not a static world and it too plays a vital role in the transition. Where the ecosystem is investing is always a leading indicator of where the transition is heading.

We can look at transitions such as entertainment (theater, radio, film, TV, video, streaming) or transportation (horses, boats, trains, cars, planes) or even storage (removable, hard drives, USB, flash) as examples of where these traits are demonstrated. Computer user-interface moving from characters to GUI to touch shows these traits as well.

The introduction of the iPad, and the modern mobile OS (and smartphones) in general, shows many of these characteristics.  The modern OS in combination with new hardware has many characteristics that separate it from the PC era including sealed case (non-extensible hardware), ultra-low power consumption, rich embedded graphics, touch user interface, app store, exclusively wireless connectivity, and more.  This is the new platform which is where so much innovation in apps is taking place.

Here is where the debate starts—some of those features are either not valued or true limitations when compared to the vastly more capable PC model. There’s no doubt about that. It is just a fact. Not only does the PC have a wider range and more “powerful” hardware options, but it also benefits from 20 years of software that drives a vast array of processes, devices, workflows, and more.  Tablet hardware is still immature relative to “PC standards” and apps do not seem to cover so many of the existing PC scenarios (even if they cover scenarios not even dreamed of or possible on PCs).

Hardware and Software

Two things are still rapidly changing that will account for a much broader transition from the dichotomy of tablet OR laptop today to a world where tablets with modern operating systems begin (or have begun) to replace many scenarios occupied by laptops.

We will soon start to see more innovation in tablets.

First, the hardware in tablets will benefit enormously from Moore’s law. While the pace of changes in smartphones (screen size, cpu, gpu, specs) has been faster than we have seen in tablets, my guess is we will soon start to see more innovation in tablets. In terms of both form factor and specs, tablets have been reasonably static since introduction. There are give or take two screen sizes and fairly modest spec bumps. My guess is that since the same vendors make both smartphones and tablets, the vast amount of energy has been focused on smartphones for now (just as when the PC industry shifted innovation from desktops to laptops and then swung back again to focus on all-in-ones).  I suspect we will start to see more screen sizes for tablets and more innovation in peripherals and capabilities, along with specs that benefit from the rapid progress in Moore’s law.

Second, all the hardware innovation in the world isn’t enough to drive new scenarios or even more dramatic replacement scenarios. The amazing innovation in software on smartphones shows what can take place when developers of the world see potential and tap into the power of a new platform.

Two Examples

I wanted to offer two examples of where the transition to tablets has been surprisingly “behind the scenes” and really out of sight, but very interesting from a technical perspective.

Many of us find ourselves in the AT&T store all too often because we’re adding a line, replacing a phone, getting a new SIM or whatever.  Over the past year or so, AT&T has aggressively rolled out iPads to replace the in-store PCs that were used for customer service. This is a massive software challenge. The in-store PCs had point of sale capability, bar code readers (for SIMs), and a large array of apps that drove the entire customer engagement (some of these apps ran Windows OpenStep believe it or not).

He kept telling me how frustrating it was to deal with the lack of capabilities of the new tools.

If you happened to visit the store during the early stages of the transition, you would have been able to sense the frustration with the account managers.  There were many unfamiliar elements to the new apps on the iPads and worse there seemed to be many things that the desktop tools could do that the iPad apps could not.  For example, I got caught trying to merge two accounts and the rep was forced to call the regional call center to do the work and while on hold he kept telling me how frustrating it was to deal with the lack of capabilities of the new tools.  At the same time, the iPad had cool integration with portable bar code readers, the reps could easily show you what is on the screen to verify information (like picking a new phone number) and so on.

The transition is well underway now and I don’t think folks notice any more.

Today I spent a few hours with my friendly Comcast technician while he diagnosed something faulty with our cable signal.  While he has a fancy signal meter, most of the work he does is actually adjusting things via a remote app on an iPad.  Comcast technicians (as I learned, the ones in vans but not “bucket trucks”) were recently issued iPads. Sure enough during the visit he was on the phone to a central office and was saying “I have an iPad now and so without my PC I’m not able to get that measurement”.

The tech said, “I have an iPad now and so without my PC I’m not able to get that measurement”.

I was having flashbacks to the frustrated AT&T reps. Turns out this technician used to have a PC and ran the same software as the tech at the other end of the phone (and in the bucket trucks). They are moving techs to iPads because they do not have to carry chargers; they are more resilient when dropped; and the integrated Verizon connectivity all make for a far more convenient service tool.  Plus things like entering the MAC address become much easier with bar code readers and the ability to use a much more agile form factor, as one example.

The conversation I had with a tech (always the anthropologist) was fun.  He said they have a whole tracking and feedback process that helps them to prioritize what features the software folks need to add to the apps being used in the field. Turns out, I’m guessing, they built some pretty elaborate desktop software that did just about everything since it was used on the ground and in the data center, but they likely had little understanding of just what was used and how often. The creation of new apps will drive a new level of customer service and technician capabilities, even if there are some hiccups along the way.

Broader Implications

These two examples are hard core line of business tools. We’re seeing the same thing in the line of business tools used by folks at all sorts of companies big and small. The new generation of mobile-first SaaS tools make it far easier to create “documents” for sharing and collaboration, access business information, or participate in business services from CRM to accounting to benefits.  The tools these are supplanting were developed over a decade and have tons of features and optimizations but lack the mobility and internet access that is so highly valued in a modern workplace. The transition will have some hiccups but is happening.

Along with these tools, so many of the tools for creation and production that are PC based on being reimagined and recast for modern work. We can see this revolution in Adobe’s work on photography for professionals with tablets, Paper and Penci from fiftythree, and of course the long list of productivity tools we talk about often on this blog. These tools do less, but they also do more. When combined with tablets and smartphones on modern platforms they enable a new view on the work and scenarios.

The characterization of tablets as “neither here nor there” or “in between tablet and a laptop” misses the reality that the modern nature of tablet platforms—both hardware and software—will drive innovation and subsequent transition for many many scenarios from traditional laptop platforms to tablet platforms.  We’re in the middle period where this is happening—just as when people said cars were too expensive for the masses and would not be mainstream or when the GUI interface lacked the hardware horsepower and “keystroke productivity” to replace character based tools.

New hardware and new software will surface new capabilities and scenarios not previously possible (or imagined).

The traditional laptop will power hundreds of millions of endpoints for a very long time. But as the two examples here show, even in the most hardcore worlds where device integration meets custom software, there is a transformation and transition taking place.  New hardware and new software will surface new capabilities and scenarios not previously possible (or imagined). It won’t be smooth and it won’t please everyone immediately, but it is happening–just as both of those same scenarios transitioned from character to GUI.

It really is about the software. That change is happening all around us.

–Steven (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

May 6, 2014 at 3:30 pm

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