The Digital Transformation Operating Systems

Why Dropbox, Teams and Slack are all coming to the same conclusion

I’ve been wanting to write about the changing work tools and collaborative landscape for a while now. My original notes were from over two years ago, but recent events prompted me to put my thoughts down. I’d love your take on this, discuss on the Slack, we accept English and French 😀

On to the update.

Computer Systems, Operating Systems and the Digitisation of Tasks

Recently Dropbox revealed the technologies and products that would further spur growth using its platform. Dropbox is trying to create a higher-level operating system predicated on users that need to get things done, rather than to “use a computer”

If we look at computer usage and how it has evolved, we see a clear and straight path traced from the beginnings of computing — where mainframes and shared access were de rigour — in which users had one or two specific tasks in mind and set out to accomplish them. Often these were scientifically or mathematically based problems that had clear goals and outcomes; solve this incredibly complex algorithm, calculate this difficult sum, resolve for X the average…, etc.

Computer usage evolved largely because the computers themselves evolved, being driven by the demands of the users that wanted to do more and more complex things, faster and faster. Technological advances aided this and in the early 1960s Moore’s Law was born. A law that has only started to become less and less relevant.

Soon, people started using computers to do what would have been heretical things back in those early times; playing games, writing letters, listing items all became not just easily accomplishable tasks, but the very reason people would purchase computers.

Further developments enabled software houses like Microsoft to provide better tools to allow the computer to get out of the way and for the user to concentrate more on the tasks for completion. The modern operating system was born. Windows, Mac OS (which transformed to OS X then MacOS, note the distinction) all provided users with a simple, safe and often fun environment to work and play.

Placed on top of these systems were the applications that enabled specialised job functions to be digitalised. Photoshop digitalised manual and often frustrating photo development, Quark Express upended magazine and newspaper layout by treating objects digitally and writing itself became a digital process only for most people.

Then something changed, something that so fundamentally shifted the paradigm of computer systems that it not only upended the way we used computers, but has totally changed their design and build. It is all attributable to what we now term “The Cloud”.

Cloud Computing

Although a recent phenomenon as far as the general public is concerned, Cloud Computing owes its origins to the very first implementations of interconnected networks, the ARPANET. ARPANET was a US Government-funded network design that had its initial design goals set to provide a failsafe communications network in the event of attack or dysfunction. ARPANET solved the problem by routing and re-routing the communications around different routes, then reassembling the pieces to make a coherent transmission. Even back then, in 1977, the cloud symbol was depicted to simplify the structural understanding of the (very complex) design.

In a working paper at Compaq (subsequently purchased by Hewlett Packard), the phrase “Cloud Computing” appeared, however, it was subsequently popularised by Amazon when they marketed their nascent cloud computing product ECC (Elastic Compute Cloud).

Once given mass appeal and implemented in business, suddenly the enterprise, pro and consumer markets were ripe for the introduction of applications that targeted specific needs, or solved particular jobs to be done.

Today, a large majority of applications in use at home and in business, are either 100% cloud or have cloud elements attached. The Cloud has allowed developers and designers freedom to try new things and the flexibility to modify quickly if something doesn’t fit. Completely new applications use cases have been developed as a direct result of the cloud computing revolution and signs indicate that it is not likely to stop anytime soon.

The changing landscape enabled because of the cloud

One spin-off from this revolution is the profound effect it is having on the incumbents and how those specific legacy systems are getting disrupted out of business.

With the release of Windows 95, Microsoft expertly leveraged it and its cash cow sibling, the Office applications bundle, to gain a hold on the entire computing operating systems business. If it didn’t work with Windows it was essentially irrelevant1.

Built for individual computing, Windows and the computers it was mostly paired with, were ill-suited to the shift towards cloud computing taking place over the last 5 to 10 years. And this is where today’s once-relegated-to application-status programs show the way forward for computing in the hyper-connected universe in which we find ourselves.

Applications that touch virtually every aspect of modern lives —cab calling, pizza delivery, doctor reservations, even toothbrush applications that analyse brushing style and offer tips for better dental health— are being built because of three main factors; the 24hours online nature of the tools, the abstraction of the ties to a specific operating system and the form-factor that creates and encourages ultra-portability.

Modern computing platforms are all connected to the Internet by default. Your phone, your tablet and the new generation of laptop PCs all have cellular radios in them, with access-anywhere, anytime, Internet.

Legacy operating systems are becoming less and less relevant. Ask yourself, do you talk about Uber as an application on the iPhoneOS or, most likely, as a service that you access from your phone?

Speaking of phones, this the third factor, exists because of miniaturisation techniques developed by companies like Apple and Samsung, that have provided always-on super-computing power in the palm of your hand.

Which gets us to the subject of the new Cloud OSes on the horizon and how, despite different starting points, the paths are converging towards the same thing for corporate and con

The Cloud OS

I’ve been particularly interested in the developments of three companies’ products and how they change the nature of computing moving it from a legacy individual task-based needs response, to a more collaborative jobs-to-be-done enabler. Dropbox, Microsoft Teams and Slack, all show enormous potential to change the way we use computing systems, …if it hasn’t happened already.

Dropbox started life out as a small add-on that allowed the transfer, storage and synchronisation of files on your local computer to their cloud infrastructure. With obvious benefits such as availability, backup and omni-availability, the reasons not to use it were difficult to find. Other developments enabled the inclusion of a more granular security model that enabled the selective sharing of files and documents between consenting participants. Dropbox stayed like this for some time and became a well respected and trusted partner for handling your data.

Recent announcements by Dropbox have shown their understanding of this coming change and their willingness to work with other providers to develop and enhance their offering, developing it to something more akin to a workplace operating system than a data synchronisation utility. Dropbox has partnered with Microsoft, Google and others addressing the need for people to get things done and not become preoccupied by the underlying systems that enable it. Directly from their software, team collaborative features are being rolled out. You can make a Zoom call, message directly through Slack and many more.

Microsoft Teams is coming to the same conclusion with their Teams platform. Built on the legacy base of Sharepoint, Teams is designed to be a more collaborative start and endpoint of doing a task rather than a step in a complex workflow. Sharepoint was never able to get past this problem. Microsoft has finally developed a platform that is able to integrate outside tools in a way that looks and works like native extensions and be easy and enjoyable to use. There are, additionally, plenty of app integrations with tools that are sometimes in direct competition to Microsoft’s own productivity tools being promoted. How times have changed!

Just looking at Project Management (PM) software, Microsoft has its own well-respected Microsoft Project tool, Teams features a slim PM tool called Planner that fits the bill for probably something like 90+% of general PM. Not only that, but they actively promote a rival, Trello.

Slack is on a similar path, with te aforementioned integrations with Dropbox, but also Microsoft’s own collaborative suite Office 365. I’ll not labour the point, but you can see where this all leading, the fight for the start point in any working environment.

The original controller of the computing experience was the manufacturer (IBM, DEC, etc.), disrupted by the operating system developer (Microsoft, Apple) and this is now itself being disrupted by the intrinsically agnostic application developer. The difference today is that the operating systems developers are not letting disruption happen to them without their own self-disruption. That fact alone (that Microsoft is willing to collaborate on such an important tool for Microsoft) should tell you that they understand that time is up for Windows. Apple itself, is also in the midst of its own transition and is pivoting more of its revenue to services, which explains the departure of Jony Ive and also last weeks’ web beta for its Apple Music service.

I want to write more about the reason why I think Jony Ive is leaving Apple at the end of this year, but I’ll be focusing on today’s event from Cupertino and seeing how that may affect my thoughts.

Collaborative tools like these mentioned are the future of modern computing, acting as the entrance, the glue and the final resting place of work, which itself is becoming ever more collaborative in nature.

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(1) I know this is not strictly true as Apple and a few others had market share in their proprietary systems optimised for specialised computing and not general computing like Windows allowed.

Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen