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[Update: be sure to read the comments for more on the coming ‘application agnostic’ world.]

Kimbro at Virtualization Daily and Scott Lowe are having an interesting conversation on the Role of the OS from the desktop perspective. I’m knee-deep working with virtual appliances these days, which tend to be server-based at this point. There we are starting to see stripped down Linux distributions, which only include the services and complexity necessary for the application contained within it. I would expect to see profiled  operating systems (ie configured for specific tasks) from all the major players within a year or two. This is a major win for reduction of complexity, simplification of updates, and avoidance of security exploits in random unneeded packages.

But what about the desktop? What does a cooperating set of virtual machines on your desktop mean? And who profits more — Microsoft, Apple, Sun, Red Hat, Novell … ?

Kimbro rounds up some of the conversation and sets the stage in The OS is under attack:

If
you can run Mac OS and Windows on the same machine and use whichever
program you want, and drag data back and forth at will between the two,
what does an operating system mean? In a sense, it just becomes a
visual preference rather than a system or standards choice. And if you
spend most of your time using Web apps, the operating system means even
less. We’re not quite there yet, of course, but would such a world help
Apple or Windows more?

Scott Lowe then wrote an extended riff on the End of the OS As-We-Know-It, but exempts Mac OS X.

I do agree with these conclusions on at least one point:  The
general purpose operating system as we know it will cease to exist in
the next 5 to 10 years, perhaps sooner.  I do believe that the release
of massive development projects such as Windows Vista
won’t be the norm moving forward and that, in fact (as others have
predicted as well), Windows Vista will be the last of its kind.

Notice I didn’t place Mac OS X in that list as well.  Why?  Because I think that Apple is capitalizing on an architecture and a convergence of technology that allows it to make Mac OS X into what Windows NT was supposed to be.

I think Scott lumps together too much the technical arguments of
Windows vs OS X (OS X wins) with marketshare arguments around the various unixes
and Linuxes (OS X wins again). I don’t think OS X has any magical advantage, and nor do I think it’s uniquely privileged to run the hypervisor, as it currently does with Parallels Desktop and the upcoming VMware product.  In a hypervisor-driven world where my desktop is a cluster of cooperating virtual machines (security, storage, etc.) and where my "desktop" can live anywhere, Apple’s current software-locked-to-hardware business model falls down. If I can’t run OS X anywhere but Apple-branded hardware, then Mac users have to sit out on a lot of innovation going forward. However, virtualization is disruptive enough that it’s still anybody’s game to win, if they put their chips on the right strategies.

Scott concludes with the question of whether the hypervisor should be inside or outside the OS.

So I guess the future of the operating system depends on your
perspective.  If you’re an operating system guy, you’ll say that the OS
has a bright future, and point to developments such as built-in
paravirtualization and bundled hypervisors to prove your point.  If
you’re a virtualization guy, you’ll say that the OS is dead, and you’ll
point to developments such as third-party paravirtualization and
independent hypervisors to prove your point.  Which of these two is
correct?

And that’s the forking path coming up for virtualization — do you get the hypervisor layer from your OS vendor, effectively locking you in to a single operating system? Is your ability to run a guest dependent on the business deals between the various players, which may be what we’re seeing in the recent Microsoft deals with XenSource and Novell? Are you willing to run a hypervisor that is locked to one brand of hardware? Or does the hypervisor sit outside the OS, allowing you to use the OS of your choice? The latter future seems a lot more appealing to me, although I’m admittedly looking at it from a VMware perspective.

But we digress a bit from the central question here — what about virtualization on the desktop? When two or more OSes are sharing your devices and now your display, what is the role of the OS? Who are the winners and the losers?