Not long ago, I was presenting along with some folks to the senior executive team at a large division of a massive insurance company. I had the great pleasure of listening to Eileen Naughton of YouTube, when she referred to Google as the operating system for search, Facebook as the operating system for social, Twitter as the operating system for real time and YouTube as the operating system for video. I found her characterization of the services fascinating and useful. I'd add LinkedIn as the operating system for business contacts and Foursquare, the phone/location-based social network which is adding 100,000 users every 10 days just took down $20 million in venture funding may become the operating system for broadcasting your "mobile" location.
Let's turn to the Wikipedia definition of an operating system: An operating system (OS) is a set of system software programs in a computer that regulate the ways application software programs use the computer hardware and the ways that users control the computer.
Well, Eileen's notion of each of these companies providing different operating systems may be a stretch because the internet is certainly more than computer hardware, but I do like the notion that Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and maybe Foursquare are much bigger than a simple application. They are a platform in the sense that they provide a set of resources that have value and persistent functionality. Furthermore, they create an environment into which others can plug their capabilities. If you use Tweetdeck, or one of the thousands of Twitter applications you know what I mean. In a certain sense, these companies are providing components of the internet "operating system" just as batch processing was an operating system component for 1950's mainframes.
I bet that the killer apps of this environment will continue to be those which create the right combination of capability and platform support to enable new functionality. There were many attempts to do video on the internet before YouTube figured out how to make it easy and scalable. SMS was a real time updating tool long before Twitter, but Twitter's easy-to-broadcast capability and $0 price helped it to take off. Each "operating system" had competition when it started, but they created the best simple solution which enabled for easy adoption. Their complexity grew only after they were on their way to creating the standard for their niche.
The beautiful thing about these different tools is that they are loosely coupled. (Eight years ago Tim O'Reilly suggested that we would want a "loosely coupled" operating system for the internet.) It is possible to embed YouTube into Twitter, and web sites into Facebook, etc. The reason that these different innovations can move at their own pace -- which is super fast -- is due to this loose coupling. If they were tightly coupled, it would be like running a race in a chain gang -- the entire crew can only move as fast as the slowest innovator. In this, loosely coupled does not mean totally open. Google is very proprietary about parts of their service, as is Facebook. But interoperability of social data, links, preferences, etc., is what makes them hum.
Due to the expanding nature of the internet and the addition of more and more mobile devices, I don't expect that there will be any slow down in the innovation in new "operating systems" any time soon. Unlike the micro-computer business, the network is far too vast and varied to settle down in a few years. I expect this creative destruction to be going on until I'm 100 (I'll be 53 this Saturday).
What do you think?