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Will We Ever See Responsively Designed Operating Systems?

Responsive design operating system

There's so much more to responsive design than scaling boxes

As developers, we’re now spending a lot of time implementing responsive design on our web sites, yet one of the things we haven’t seemed to consider is how the essential principles of RWD might apply to the engines that run our browsers: our operating systems.

Now, I’ll admit that this whole notion might just be a silly idea that leapt onto my brain whilst sitting in my bathtub last week and thus is exactly why no one has given it much thought before. However, as impractical as it might initially sound, I personally find the concept of a truly responsive OS to be an intriguing one. We design and build our web sites to be as ubiquitous and device agnostic as possible, fully usable on (theoretically) any size of screen and type of interface so why should an operating system be any different? If a single web site can be utilised no matter the device, couldn’t the same principle of scaling, adaptive design be applied to our OS’?

Of course, we have already have distinctive operating systems for our multitude of devices with the likes of OSX and iOS for Mac products, multiple versions of Ubuntu and even a separate version of Windows for smart phones. With each of these individual interfaces tailored exactly to the needs and interactivity of the device that runs it, a perfectly valid question is why would we need the same version of a OS to run on different devices anyway? Well I guess we don’t. Right now.

You’ll probably figure out where the inspiration for this article came from as soon I mention that I’ve been spending a lot of time recently with Windows 8 on both desktop PCs and the Microsoft Surface. To give credit where it’s due (I know, I know, it pains me too), Microsoft have had the commendable ambition to do what many others haven’t and tried to unify their OS across several devices. Their tablet runs the same version of Windows as desktop PCs (albeit lacking some features on lower spec tablets) and presents the first step forward in making operating systems fully device agnostic. In many ways, they’ve already created the first responsively designed OS.

I’ll admit their implementation is complete travesty though but that’s beside the point. Indeed, Microsoft’s good intentions have been let down by a lack of commitment and ultimately what the Windows 8 UI provides is a bizarre mutation between desktop and tablet interfaces. Metro works well on smaller touch screens but becomes utterly superfluous on larger desktops whilst the traditional Windows UI that lies behind it is perfect for desktops and next to impossible to use on tablets (my large fingers make trying to navigate File Explorer on the Surface is akin to using a calculator whilst drunk). Whilst I applaud Microsoft’s intentions and reasoning, they’re not quite there yet (funnily enough though, aside from the Metro issue, Windows 8 is actually an excellent desktop OS).

But just because Windows 8 hasn’t quite got it right, it doesn’t mean that responsive design isn’t the way to go with our operating systems. As with any good design, we need to move away from hacked-hybrid implementations and start afresh, re-designing the basic user interactions to be accomplishable on scaling screen sizes and different device inputs. After all, just because we don’t have a workable solution now, it doesn’t mean we can’t get there. Apple, for example, proved the power of intelligent, user centred designed after they took an existing device type that been around for years and relaunched it as the highly successful iPad. Like them not, they did have the vision to think ahead.

And this is where I can see the benefits of having responsively designed operating systems: the future. As our handheld devices become more powerful and more ubiquitous, I can imagine us wanting to use them in more frequent, varied situations. Why couldn’t we be plugging our smart phones into external monitors or televisions and using them as standard desktop computers? Why should’t we be able to connect up a mouse and turn out touchscreens into traditional laptops? It seems so practical and natural. We even already have laptops with disconnecting touchscreens so isn’t it about time we have a OS that’s fully usable in both modes?

No one can predict the future but it does seem like technology is becoming less about the device and more about how we use it. I know better than most that responsive design isn’t a silver bullet but I do believe that the adaptive and flexible design principles it encourages shouldn’t just be limited to the web.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.




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  1. Jason September 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    I don’t use windows phone, but this was the first thing that came to my mind… they are doing this, though each platform offers different features. Windows will maybe have a win in the future when they have a different leader… Maybe. The seem innovative without follow through so often.

  2. Shane Gowland October 27, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    You’re not the only one who’s spent considerable time thinking about this. It’s something I really want to see happen, particularly in the Windows ecosystem.

    • Gordon October 28, 2013 at 10:48 am

      I saw an ad on TV last night with MS promoting Windows 8 across all of their devices (desktop, surface and phone) so they seem to be thinking about it. Still, running normal Windows on a tablet but with a touch UI slapped on the front of it isn’t really the solution…

  3. [...] been hypothesizing a responsive operating system for years. While a single Operating System for all form factors remains a pipe dream, [...]

  4. patricia January 4, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    I’m low-vision and while Windows accessibility settings help in some ways, they also cause trouble in others. I find myself having to change the settings back to “normal” on a regular basis to get through some process that didn’t adjust well to the low-vision settings. I’m really liking some of these redesigned websites where I don’t have to do much more than Ctrl + to be able to read it without distorting the whole page. I wish I could just do that for the native fonts of programs instead of going back and forth on the resolution and without losing access to buttons like “Ok” and “Cancel.” Or, using the Windows Magnifier as that can be disorienting and cannot replicate the smoothness of moving your eyes across a screen. Hope responsive operating systems come to reality.

  5. Architect February 7, 2014 at 3:58 am

    Good stuff. Love your site. Like you said, there is an evolution in design happening and it isn’t just limited to the web or to software or anything else. It is rarely smooth and comes in fits and spurts.

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