TORONTO — Windows may no longer be the behemoth in the world of the operating system, as Apple and trends like virtualization, Linux-based systems, and Web-based applications emerge as the next step in the evolution of the OS.

Speaking at the IT World Canada-sponsored IT360 event Tuesday, Joe Habraken, an assistant professor with the University of New England and an author of numerous IT books, said that Apple could be the new competitor to beat in the enterprise market. He said, “I think the biggest threat to Microsoft (depends on) how some of the Mac Intel hardware evolves.” The growing emphasis on multimedia applications and visual communication could also tilt the balance in favour of Macs, he said.

Habraken said that Apple has made a very clever inroad into the enterprise market, via the education space. “Most students own iPods and then they own Macs. Apple has also inserted their products in many middle schools and high schools, and Microsoft missed out on that,” said Habraken. “These kids are going to go into the workplace and become middle managers or MBAs — they’ll either control the pursestrings or the IT purchases. It might reach that tipping point where people say, ‘Why can’t we run Macs as an enterprise machine?’”

This proposition will seem all the better if the workers can enjoy the best of both worlds by running a Windows environment on a Mac for the times when it is better-suited to a certain task. Habraken said that the MacMall, the top direct reseller, has been selling MacBook Pros and iMacs with Windows XP installed on them. (This operating system egalitarianism is furthered by mirroring programs that can make one operating system mimic the other and the fact that most of them look similar now, making end users generally unaware of the difference.)
                                   
This kind of virtualization is another emerging technology in the operating system field. Software development companies have caught on to the advantages of having a number of different operating systems accessible on a single desktop, and companies are starting to come around. Microsoft, for example, recently released Virtual Machine Manager, which manages virtual operating systems on networks. Said Habraken: “When you see Microsoft get involved in the game, you know that it’s right on the edge of exploding.”

Paul Nadon, a network administrator with the Winnipeg-based land development company Qualico Developments West, sees virtualization as benefiting both enterprise and small businesses. Enterprise can just invest in a giant server and manage it centrally, while smaller companies could enjoy the cost savings of fewer licences. Habraken pointed out that companies could also ensure maximum efficiency by just giving each employee the applications they needed.

Another alternative to the traditional operating system is using Web-based applications. Examples include the Java-run Web desktop YouOS, and the recently debuted Google Apps, said Habraken, who believes that these options will only increase in popularity as Internet connections grow faster and computers can run on a more base level, without as much dependency on a solid operating system.

A growing mobile workforce could also drive adoption of these Web-based technologies, as, for instance, Google Apps can be accessed from anywhere. Work can also be saved centrally. Nadon said, however, that his company could not use these technologies, due to the security loopholes involved; accessing important company information via the open Web could make for security issues.

While the low cost has always been an attractive selling point for open source software, some companies might be wary of switching from their longrunning Windows platform merely because of the lateral feel of a move to open source. Nadon said that the corporate costs (like licensing) involved in proprietary operating systems are easily understandable, while the costs involved with open source can be more intangible (like training and support).

Habraken said that rumours of Dell CEO Michael Dell favourite Ubuntu becoming the operating system of choice on future PCs (a rumour which was confirmed Tuesday) are lending momentum to the open source operating system movement. The move toward open source-based operating systems could also be further facilitated by a better support net from the open source operating system vendors like Novell, Ubuntu, and RedHat, according to Habraken.

He said that there has been improved integration with applications, but that there is still a long way to go, as many programs are not Linux-compatible (although Nadon said that some companies are taking steps toward this now). But the more unfamiliar Linux operating systems aren’t the only ones suffering from compatibility issues these days.

Application integration is a major problem for Nadon. He said that the company’s accounting suite, Newstar, does not work with Vista, as the upgraded security of the new operating system makes it incompatible with many software programs—and some hardware, too. “Vista is not an option for us,” said Nadon. “If we want to migrate, we’d have to replace our computers, even.”

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