Operating Systems and the Driver Issue

I made a quip the other day about the UNIX Epoch problem (unix time stamps, are measured in seconds since Jan 1, 1970, and displayed in a 10 digit number. Sometime in 2038, there will need to be 11 digits, and there's no really good way to fix that.) Someone responded "whatever, we won't be using UNIX in thirty years!"

Famous last words.

People were saying this about UNIX itself years ago. Indeed before Linux had even begun to be a "thing," Bell Labs had moved on to "Plan 9" which was to be the successor to UNIX. It wasn't. Unix came back. Hell, in the late eighties and early nineties we even thought that the "monolithic kernel" as a model of operating system design was dead, and here we are. Funny that.

While it's probably the case that we're not going to be using the same technology in thirty years that we are today (i.e. UNIX and GNU/Linux,) it's probably also true that UNIX as we've come to know it, is not going to disappear given UNIX's stubborn history in this space. More interesting, I think, is to contemplate the ways that UNIX and Linux will resonate in the future. This post is an exploration of one of these possibilities.


I suppose my title has forced me to tip my hand slightly, but lets ignore that for a moment, and instead present the leading problem with personal computing technology today: hardware drivers.

"Operating System geeks," of which we all know one or two, love to discuss the various merits of Windows/OS X/Linux "such and such works better than everything else," "such and such is more stable than this," "suck and such feels bloated compared to that," and so on and so forth. The truth is that if we take a step back, we can see that the core problem for all of these operating systems is pretty simple: it's the drivers, stupid.

Lets take Desktop Linux as an example. I'd argue that there are two large barriers to it's widespread adoption. First it's not immediately familiar to people who are used to using Windows. This is pretty easily addressed with some training, and I think Microsoft's willingness to change their interface in the last few years (i.e. the Office "Ribbon," and so forth,) is a great testimony to the adaptability of the user base. The second, and slightly more thorny issue is about hardware drivers: which are the part of any operating system that allow the software to talk to hardware like video, sound, and networking (including, of course, wireless) adapters. The Kernel has gotten much better in this regard in the past few years (probably by adding support for devices without requiring their drivers be open source), but the leading cause of an "install just not working," is almost always something related to the drivers.

"Linux People," avoid this problem by buying hardware that they know is well supported. In my world that means, "Intel everything particularly if you want wireless to work, and Nvidia graphics if you need something peppy, which I never really do," but I know people who take other approaches.

In a weird way this "geek's approach to linux" is pretty much the same way that Apple responds to the driver problem in OS X. By constraining their Operating System to run only on a very limited selection of hardware, they're able to make sure that the drivers work. Try and add a third party wireless card to OS X. It's not pretty.

Windows is probably the largest victim to the driver problem: they have to support every piece of consumer hardware and their hands are more or less tied. The famous Blue Screen of Death? Driver errors. System bloat (really for all operating systems) tends to be about device drivers. Random lockups? Drivers. Could Microsoft build better solutions for these driver problems, or push equipment manufacturers to use hardware that had "good drivers," probably; but as much as it pains me, I don't really think that it would make a whole lot of business sense for them to do that, at the moment.


More on this tomorrow...

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