Mobile Operating Systems: Good, But Not Quite Good Enough?

At the time of writing, Apple has recently released iOS 7, an update to its mobile operating system which radically changes the user interface of the iPhone and iPad models on which it runs, along with a host of technical changes that represent a significant jump in performance and technical sophistication. Among these technical changes is the adoption of full multitasking, a clear and perplexing omission from previous iOS versions, especially when the underlying operating system architecture manifestly had no problems with multitasking in general. Android has reached version 4.3, rising from its inauspicious roots to become the most popular smartphone operating system in the world. These two operating systems represent almost all of the smartphone market, with some minor competition from Windows Phone and BlackBerry OS.

Between the two operating systems, the ecosystem of most mobile devices has been moulded and shaped. Both systems work in broadly similar ways, with icon-packed home screens linking into apps, which are generally there to do a single, narrowly defined task, such as playing films, updating your Facebook or Twitter status or delivering some internet-linked content to the device. These applications are typically downloaded from the respective app stores of the two operating systems and are represented in encapsulated forms in which the inner workings are concealed. The same principle of encapsulation applies to the user interface and the operating environment in general; without unsupported “jailbreaking” or rooting, the underlying structure of the operating system is tucked away out of the user’s reach.

It is therefore clear that the Android or iOS smartphone is set up very much as a device, which is a very comfortable environment for the general end-user. Such a layout for an operating environment lends itself well to reliability and ease-of-use, both features which are favourable in a device designed for most users. From this aspect, Android and iOS can be said to have succeeded.

The problem, though, is that I am not a general end-user. I like to explore operating systems, to exploit their potential more heavily than most users and I am willing to give up a bit of reliability and ease of use in the process. The rise of Android and iOS at the expense of all of their competitors gives me a strange feeling of dejà vu; it feels very similar to the rise of Microsoft Windows and Mac OS in the 1990s, but with more restrictive, more limited operating systems.

I own an iOS device, a fourth-generation iPod Touch with iOS 6.1.3. As such, I’m not completely turned off by the nature of iOS or Android. However, I use my iPod Touch almost entirely as a music player, occasionally using the internet on it. I rarely use apps outside of the pre-installed applications; most apps appear to me to be doing things which could just as adequately be done on the internet itself, without having the encapsulation provided by the app. This is rather disappointing for a device which could just as well be used as a general-purpose computer.

When I say that smartphones have sufficient power to be used for general-purpose computing, I’m not being glib or exaggerating; I own at least one desktop which is less powerful than the smartphones currently on the market, and I had no particular problems with processing power when I was running programs on it back when I was using it as my primary desktop. Strangling the capabilities of multi-core smartphone processors with a set of apps which work by themselves in a vacuum just seems to me to be a waste of processing potential, let alone unimaginative and lacking in innovation.

What I want, therefore, is a third choice, away from the relatively closed platforms of Android and iOS. I want an operating system in which applications can and do work together. I want an operating system in which I can program applications natively on the hardware itself without having to use a bloated, slow API on a desktop. What I want, in effect, is something along the lines of a desktop Linux transplanted onto a smartphone or tablet environment… wait, wasn’t that done before? Of course it was, by Nokia officially with the Maemo distribution, along with a whole host of unofficial ports of Linux to PDA and smartphone hardware.

The most recent large-scale attempt at a Linux transplant onto a smartphone environment is Ubuntu Phone. I’m not sure how this holds up to something like Maemo, which was effectively Debian GNU/Linux transplanted onto a mobile ARM platform, but it appears that Ubuntu Phone is the closest high-profile operating system to what I want out of a smartphone. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t put money on any major hardware developer going with Ubuntu Phone officially; there’s too much demand for Android and iOS to risk that strategy for a minority of technically-minded enthusiasts like me.

In the end, though, I can understand where Apple and Google are coming from as they direct iOS and Android towards a sort of user with little interest or enthusiasm for exploiting the underlying hardware of their phones. At the same time, though, I think that such operating systems waste the hardware that they run on; surely, with such limited capabilities compared to desktop operating systems which do so much more, you shouldn’t need a dual-core or quad-core ARM processor with clock rates in excess of 1 GHz (and in some cases, exceeding 2GHz!). I’m also not content with living with such limited capabilities when devices are so fast, and therefore, if I upgrade my smartphone, I’ll probably be shoehorning some sort of desktop transplant Linux onto it.

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Some long-time readers may remember my advocacy for Symbian back when it was still at the head of the smartphone market. Ultimately, Symbian does little more to allow the user to hack at its internals than Android or iOS, and certainly doesn’t have any capacity for development on board the actual device. However, considering the complaints that many people had when comparing Symbian to iOS or Android, Symbian still compared favourably when considering the underlying architecture of view to these two operating systems. Full multitasking was available on Symbian even as far back as its origination as EPOC on Psion devices, whereas iOS has only acquired this with iOS 7.

I still use my Nokia E71, despite its obsolete operating system, and I use it for a broader range of tasks than my iPod Touch, which has a considerably newer operating system which should be superior. However, my Nokia E71 still suffices for internet use and for manipulating office documents, the most common tasks which I have used the phone for since I got it. The battery life is considerably superior to that of large-screened touchscreen smartphones which have dominated; the hardware keyboard is more comfortable and quicker for writing anything, from Facebook messages to full-scale essays. Since, aside from the outlying case of Ubuntu Phone and other unofficial Linux ports, I haven’t seen enough of a jump in potential to justify upgrading my smartphone, I’ll stick with the Nokia E71 for now and hope that somebody takes the risk to provide an officially-supported Linux that isn’t unnecessarily restricted.

Historical Operating Systems: The Apple Lisa and the Lisa Office System (a.k.a. 7/7)

While the Macintosh is by far the most successful of Apple’s personal computing endeavours, it was not the first of their systems to introduce a graphical user interface. The Apple Lisa, an expensive computer designed for a professional environment, pre-dated it by a year. However, while the original Macintosh line immediately became an icon of the 1980s, the Lisa was not a sales success and now languishes in obscurity. From a computer history point of view, the Lisa is still a very interesting machine despite its failure in the market place, with a desktop paradigm distinctly different from that of rival computers, including the Macintosh, and one that has not been replicated – in a complete form, at least – to this day.

The Apple Lisa was the first entirely new computer from Apple since their ill-fated Apple III, which had been aimed at the business market rather than the home market occupied by the Apple II. The Apple III had suffered from instability and poor hardware engineering, including a worrying set of problems associated with heat, which caused the solder connections inside the computer to melt, displacing the chips from their slots and causing the computer to fail. Its operating system, Apple SOS, was also not compatible with the Apple DOS versions that were popular on the Apple II, which made it more difficult for users to use their pre-existing software and for developers to port over their programs to the more sophisticated Apple III hardware.

The Lisa project had started before the Apple III was released, and it had originally been intended as an improvement on the Apple II design. However, when Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC in 1979, he was inspired by their nascent GUI technology which Xerox themselves had not successfully been able to market. Apple adapted the GUI technology for their own purposes as the Lisa’s development progressed.

The Lisa was released in January 1983, and as the second computer ever to be commercially released with a GUI operating system, after Xerox’s Star workstation, it presented a completely different vision of computing to the public than had been seen before. When the vast majority of personal computers presented a text-based interface to their users, usually starting with a BASIC interpreter, the GUI of the Lisa was revolutionary. What’s more, unlike the Xerox Star, which was intended to be bought as part of a networked collection of servers, clients and peripherals, the Lisa was designed as a single-user workstation for individual business users, making it rather more affordable than the Xerox machine.

Apple_Lisa

The Apple Lisa, complete with the ProFile external hard drive.

The hardware of the Lisa centred around the Motorola 68000 processor, which would later become popular among many of the competitors in the mid-to-late 1980s cycle of personal computers, including the Amiga, Atari ST, Sharp X68000 and the Macintosh itself. However, while most of those later computers used a 68000 processor clocked at approximately 8 MHz, the Lisa’s processor was a rather less impressive 5 MHz, which might have compared favourably against the MOS 6502 and Zilog Z80 processors of home computers, but was mediocre in a graphical workstation and let down the Lisa’s performance, leaving it feeling sluggish at times.

Also provided was one megabyte of RAM, substantially more than provided in any home computer of the time and more than the maximum addressable by the IBM PC, along with two 5.25” floppy drives which used a proprietary disc format. An optional accessory was an external hard drive of either 5 MB or 10 MB capacity, which connected to the Lisa’s parallel port interface. This allowed for the installation of the operating system, along with a decent amount of storage for documents.

The operating system itself, the Lisa Office System (later named 7/7), was the most interesting component of the Apple Lisa project. The Lisa OS was an advanced operating system for 1983, with many components that looked ahead of the time when compared to the text-based home computers of the early 1980s. Aside from the GUI itself, which would be quickly copied by the computer companies that survived into the mid-1980s, the Lisa OS provided cooperative multitasking, which would not be present in the Macintosh until the release of System Software 5 in the late 1980s, and virtual memory, which the Macintosh only got in the 1990s with the release of System 7.

The Lisa Office System was delivered with seven application programs (thus explaining the later name of 7/7 for the Lisa OS). Comprising a large set of office-oriented software, it could be considered one of the first office suites ever designed. The suite was formed of a spreadsheet program, a vector graphics program, a graph and chart generator, a list-based database program, a project management program, a terminal application and a word processor, effectively resolving the usual domains of the office suite. It’s interesting to see how close this set of software is to the office suites of today as well; there are some needs in computing that have changed drastically more in scope than in the general presentation of the programs used.

One of the most peculiar and distinctive things about the Lisa Office System was its approach to how files were created and manipulated. Whereas in Microsoft Windows and the Unix/Unix-like systems, there is an application-centric approach to computing, where one finds an application and uses that to create and manipulate a document, the Lisa Office System used a document-centric approach. Files were created by double-clicking generic “paper” files, representing the tearing of a page from a piece of stationery. The files then could be individually named and manipulated.

lisadraw

No, I’ve never claimed to be a good artist – working on a vector graphics illustration with LisaDraw.

There were other distinctive parts of this document-centric model, like the fact that you could not quit applications as you would on a Windows or Unix-like operating system; instead, the applications remained open as long as the application floppy was present in the drive. Files did not have to be manually saved; they could be, as an optional choice, but the default behaviour was to save the files in the background. When the power button was pressed or the floppy disc was ejected, the system would immediately begin cleaning up, meaning that files were preserved and the system was left clean for the next boot or application load. While some parts of this model have later been adopted by other systems, there has still been no system that has really tried to emulate the operation of the Lisa, even when so many hobbyist-focused and open-source operating systems have attempted to recreate the models of, for example, AmigaOS, BeOS and Atari TOS.

Perhaps there are some reasons for that, though. The Lisa was not particularly successful in the marketplace; while the Apple II sold in the millions and the Macintosh became a roaring success in the years to come, the Lisa sold in the tens of thousands. The price of the Lisa didn’t help; it was difficult for companies to justify the cost of the Lisa versus the likes of the IBM PC. However, the performance of the Lisa Office System didn’t help either.

The Macintosh, released a year later with a more powerful processor and a substantially slimmer operating system, often feels quite slow when compared to other operating systems of that general period; the Lisa, with a more sophisticated operating system, suffers from speed issues due to its less powerful processor. To be fair to the Lisa Office System, the slowness doesn’t manifest itself in the same way as it might in a Windows or Unix system, in that the system doesn’t feel like it locks up, and therefore, the system does feel clean in that respect. However, it does feel like a limitation that might have and should have been avoided by using a more powerful processor.

Another limitation of the system comes from the difficulty of programming for it. Relatively little software was written for the Lisa, and most of that was included with the Lisa Office System. As the Lisa Office System covered all of the obvious bases when it came to office software, and the system was certainly not a hacker’s system, there were few places for third-party developers to stake their claim. The Lisa Office System was also written in Pascal, which is not a programming language which is now often considered appropriate for system programming. In order to program for the Lisa, one was forced to use a separate operating system known as the Lisa Workshop and develop software on one Lisa while running it on another. This seems like it would have been tedious and prohibitively expensive for software developers, particularly in the 1980s when many programming studios were rather smaller than they are today.

There are also some other limitations of the Lisa that go outside of hardware or software performance. For a system which seems like it would have been ideal for desktop publishing, the Lisa came with a bizarre lack of typefaces and a limited set of fonts for those typefaces. While the Macintosh came with several typefaces from the very beginning, including the Helvetica and Times typefaces with later revisions (or at least similarly named clones), the Lisa had two typefaces – not really all that impressive for a system with a graphical user interface.

However, for all of those limitations, I don’t feel the Lisa deserved quite the ignominy that it received. After another couple of hardware revisions, including the Macintosh XL, which was named for the Macintosh line due to the addition of a Macintosh ROM along with the MacWorks software giving compatibility with Macintosh programs (although it was still lumbered with the slow 5 MHz processor of the other Lisa computers), the Lisa was dropped by Apple in 1986. Among its users had been NASA, whose extensive use of LisaProject led Apple to develop MacProject for the Macintosh for release in concurrence with the first Macintosh in 1984. The remaining Lisa stock was purchased by Sun Remarketing, who ended up assisting Apple in dumping several thousands of the unsold computers in order to acquire a tax rebate.

What I’ve taken away from my brief experience of emulating the Lisa software is that it feels novel, yet it also has many of the utilities of a modern office system. The document-centric stationery system feels different – not necessarily better or worse – than the more popular application-centric model, and the entire operating system feels very tightly integrated with the application software. I’m not sure I would want to use such a system in my own endeavours – I tend more towards the programmer software tendencies and the hacker’s sensibilities – but as an office system, one could certainly do worse than the Lisa, and it would probably be more intuitive to an office user than Windows once you sufficiently explained how the system works. If you can teach a neophyte with little interest in computing how to use Microsoft Office, then you could certainly teach them how to use the Lisa Office System – and they might actually be more productive on it as well!