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We need a new kind of operating system for the 5G era

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The Internet of Everything requires a new type of operating system. Google and Huawei, among others, are already working at full speed on new platforms for the 5G era. Android, iOS, and Windows will lose importance.

I still remember the CES 2015 in Las Vegas very well - as usual at the beginning of January somewhere between New Year's Eve hangover and jet lag. But at the opening keynote, the tiredness vanished quickly: the then Samsung Electronics CEO Boo-Keun Yoon spoke about his visions for the Internet of Things - and made an almost unbelievable promise: From 2020, "every new Samsung appliance will be an IoT device, whether an air purifier or a kitchen stove".

Not only Samsung, but all possible electronics manufacturers surround us slowly but surely with a network of smart devices. Even if there's still time before we reach that 100 percent mark. After all, six percent of the good 1,000 refrigerators listed at German retailer, Saturn, now offer app control. Will Samsung only bring networked devices onto the market next year? We'll see.

But now the question arises: what do we do with all the data generated by the sensors in our refrigerators, humidifiers, microwaves, televisions, cars, smartwatches and toasters? And how do we intend to keep our smart fleet of vehicles in check?

100 cameras in one app

Cameras are a handy example of sensors. Imagine you couldn't just choose between half a dozen of the cameras installed in your smartphone's camera app. Instead, the camera is also available in your car, in your fridge or in the television in the living room. With this you can send a live feed of the traffic jam at the next video call - or share a timelapse of the rotting vegetables you bought last month full of good intentions.

On the other hand, controlling your entire IoT fleet is no longer limited to smartphones. You can control the living room temperature via your smartphone, but also via the touchscreen in the fridge or via speech through the microphones built into the toaster.

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Whether it makes sense or not, Amazon customers in the USA can already buy a microwave that supports Alexa voice control. / © Amazon

It quickly becomes clear that the smartphone is changing - from a pocket-sized control center for our lives to a portable display that can be folded up and be as large as possible when you need it. At home, there will be screens in more and more devices in the future, and a whole part of human-machine interaction will shift from touch to speech.

Monolithic and microkernels

The big challenge for the operating systems of the future is precisely this: users no longer interact with discrete devices that combine all hardware features. Distributed systems, whose hardware resources and interfaces can be located anywhere, will dominate.

Today's operating systems rely on so-called monolithic kernels or hybrid kernels. The architecture is rigid and requires high minimum requirements in terms of memory and computing power. Android & Co. will never run on a light bulb, at least in their current version.

Microkernels, on the other hand, are much more modular. At the core, these operating systems are much more compact, but can also be easily expanded, since all processes run outside the actual kernel - even beyond the physical boundaries of discrete devices. Here 5G also plays an important role, but more about that later.

Surely Android and iOS will run on our smartphones for many years to come. But in my opinion, the now important operating systems will become extremely irrelevant in the coming decade.

Operating systems and interfaces

Google is working with Fuchsia on a micro-kernel operating system, and of course there are also Android Things, but similar to Microsoft's Windows 10 IoT it is still somewhere in the middle. Huawei's Harmony OS is currently gaining momentum as public perception of the system somehow arrived as an Android alternative due to the political tension between the United States, China, and Huawei. But with the micro-kernel architecture, the open-source operating system has much more potential for a networked world.

But in the next decade another question will arise: what is an operating system anyway? While the dictionary definition will probably not change, one can expect a shift in user perception. TheVerge, for example, published an article last year titled: "Amazon wants Alexa to be the operating system for your life".

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Seat has been installing Alexa voice control in its cars for some time. / © SEAT

By definition, Alexa is not an operating system, but rather an interface that works independently of the operating system - just like (theoretically) Cortana or Google Assistant. Another example of a theoretically operating system independent interface is WeChat, which is widely used in Asia. The users do not only chat here; they pay with WeChat, find apartments and conclude rental contracts and have their identification documents on there.

When asked about the significance of Android, the answer in China is a shrug of the shoulder - the main thing is that the alternative supports WeChat. Neither Google nor Huawei wanted to comment on our requests regarding Fuchsia or Harmony OS, but there will be news in 2020 at the earliest.

The meaning of 5G

The significance of 5G for the Internet of Everything should be clear by now. In the future, each device will connect directly to the cloud and to your personal ecosystem. This makes your Wi-Fi at home just as superfluous as the DSL connection and the annoying Bluetooth connection between headphones and smartphones, for example. But it also quickly becomes clear what power the providers will have in the future; they will become even more the interface of your entire digital life.

A further step, by the way, is the ongoing conversion to IPv6. The extended address space offers space for 6*10^23 devices - per square meter of earth surface. This corresponds approximately to the number of stars in the observable universe per square meter of earth. By way of comparison, IPv4 is pretty tight with a total of only 4.29 billion IP addresses.

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Cupertino also has big plans for the Internet of Things - here Craig Federighi talks about the Home App at WWDC 2019. / © Apple

That should be enough for the rest of the century, no matter how many toasters, ovens and fragrance dispensers we put on the net. The human mind traditionally finds it difficult to grow exponentially. In an Internet of Everything inhabited by MEMS or Foglets, even IPv6 could reach its limits at some point. But until then, there are still other problems to solve.

Bye bye, Windows, Android & Co.?

Back to Android, Windows and the like - will the classic operating systems soon disappear into oblivion? Certainly not. But the share of our attention will dwindle in the next few years. Until just over a decade ago, our online lives were almost entirely based on desktop computers or notebooks. This year, Similarweb counted a mobile share of 58 percent of website visits, and the trend is rising.

I'm sure in ten years' time the market will not only be divided between desktop computers, notebooks, and smartphones but will literally be fragmented. Instead of reading the news on a screen, we will conduct conversations with platform-independent language assistants about current events. "Alexa, how did the elections go today?" - "How did politician XYZ react?", and so on.

Virtual and mixed reality have not yet established themselves as platforms. But the time will come.

Instead of perceiving games as a discreet experience on a device, Gamificiation has found its way into our everyday lives - at the same time, we may withdraw for hours into photorealistic VR worlds, which in turn run on other platforms. With AR and MR glasses, we can consume media content anywhere, anytime.

Sounds like chaos?

Harmony OS is called Hong Meng in China. The name means literally translated among other things "dense fog". In Chinese mythology, Hong Meng symbolizes the original chaos that dominated the world before creation.

An apt name for the wave that is rolling towards us with the Internet of Things.

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Stefan Möllenhoff

Stefan Möllenhoff
Head of Content Production

I have been writing about technology since 2004 with a strong passion for smartphones, photography, and IoT, especially in the world of smart homes and AI ever since they debuted. I'm also an avid cook and bake pizza at least three times a week using my Ooni Koda 16. In order to compensate for all the consumed calories, I indulge in sporting activities on a daily basis while strapping on at least two fitness trackers. I am strongly convinced that you can DIY a lot of things if you put your mind to it - including a photovoltaic system and power station.

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  • 1
    Jared Dec 29, 2019 Link to comment

    First off your website is broken when running on Android phone via chrome (the comments section goes in weird pop up loops.) So fix that first.
    Secondly it looks like you are smoking something, something strong. Please let me know, if you can get it in Germany, I can get it in Washington for sure (hippie life bro).
    Thirdly I hope you get some technical education. Half the things are not correct and possibly caused by hallucination caused by point 2.
    Good luck 🤣

    • 1
      Her durr Dec 29, 2019 Link to comment

      Took me 5 minutes just to comment, I had to go into desktop mode and ad free mode just to post a reply. Something is broken, story is one sided meaning it can go any way at any point. As long as profits can be made it will always change even if we ge it by 6G something new will come up.

  • 11
    Chris Laarman Dec 28, 2019 Link to comment

    This might be the way, but I don't think so.

    (1) 5G requires quite a dense grid of antennas. I do see it grow in urban areas, but not in rural areas. These antennas need to be paid for - by the users (I remember reading what Canadians are paying for their current subscriptions) or by very ambitious governments (I could imagine the Chinese). Yes, we may find other ways, like satellite broadband for even the poorest - but again, the infrastructure has to be paid for.

    (2) I'd think that the current range of "things" shows that no fundamentally new operating system is needed. (Mine is not a commercial view.) To my knowledge, WearOS still is a member of the Linux family.

    (3) Yes, the strangest "things" may become connected by some form of Internet, but these don't require operating systems themselves. They may transmit data (camera traps noticing movement), they may receive instructions (to open a drain to let water off), but these actions don't require an operating system. The processing of incoming data that leads to outcoming instructions will be done by a computing device in some command post (which may eventually be portable or even wearable), but all processing will still consist of Sequences, If-forks and While-loops. We may well need (or want) new breeds of apps, but (technically) not new operating systems.

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