Saying “X is dead” is the new way to put on jaded-veteran airs so you can look down at all those people who don’t know it’s dead yet. Information technology is dead. Operating systems are dead. Feh. Let’s take a look at the “IT is dead” claim, as recently made by Thomas M. Siebel in the NYT, first.

In Mr. Siebel’s view, I.T. is a mature industry that will grow no faster than the larger economy. He contends that its glory days are past — long past, having ended in 2000.

I have no doubt that IT as Siebel knows it is starting to decline, but that only reflects how much IT has continued to evolve while he has apparently stood still. Siebel is a typewriter manufacturer. Back in the day, typing was something that typists and secretaries did. When computers came along, everyone started typing. I’m sure a typewriter of that time might have looked at the declining number of typists and thought “typing is dead” but that would have been a mistake. Don’t confuse the decline of a market with the decline of an underlying technology or activity. In fact, more people are typing now than ever. There’s even a lot of money to be made selling keyboards, though they’re computer keyboards instead of typewriters.

So it is with IT. People are still doing IT, but more people are doing it in more places. You no longer need dedicated equipment or personnel to handle even the simplest computing tasks. Users themselves are installing software, updating web pages, etc. Then there’s that person in every office who does slightly less routine kinds of IT tasks like troubleshooting network problems. Routers and even low-end storage are now sold as office supplies, not as specialized computing equipment. Your DVD player has processors running software, but I’ll bet it doesn’t show up on “IT equipment” sales. My iPod Touch has more computing power than things that used to be called supercomputers, but it’s not “IT equipment” either. A lot of this spending doesn’t show up as IT spending, so people like Siebel don’t figure it into their calculations, but that’s just because they’re counting the wrong thing.

There’s a similar dynamic at work with the “operating systems are dead” meme, which has actually been going around for a while. I’m going to pick an example from Paul Maritz, as quoted by Storagezilla.

Paul Maritz pointed out that today no one really writes to an OS anymore, they write to 3rd generation Frameworks. And he’s right, if we look around we see lots of 3rd generation Frameworks and some of them are more cross platform than others. We all know about Java and .Net but Cocoa for MacOS X (Found on your Mac and your iPhone) Adobe Air, Microsoft Silverlight and so on are all examples of Third Generation Frameworks.

Yes, there are a lot of people working on such frameworks, and even more using them. That’s nothing like “nobody writes to an OS any more” though. Who wants to run any of the following on Air or Silverlight?

  • Development tools, starting with compilers and interpreters.
  • Databases.
  • Web servers (on which many frameworks themselves depend).
  • Email servers.
  • LDAP servers, VPN gateways, etc.
  • Anything in HPC.

The answer is nobody. I don’t think the people behind gcc or Oracle or Exchange are planning to run on top of any such “third generation” frameworks (and BTW I wonder how the third generation is different). They plan to support such frameworks, but that’s different. Operating systems provide a general and stable interface, suitable for many kinds of applications beyond those for which any given framework is likely to be appropriate, and with full performance for when that matters

What might be true is that, the division between “back end” platform (i.e. OS) specialists and “front end” interface or domain-specific specialists will change. Instead of every application-development group being about evenly split between the two, there might be some people developing a few (or a few dozen) frameworks and a much larger number using those frameworks. Same as it ever was. Having been an OS developer for so long, I’m well aware that my kind have long been outnumbered by people working at a much higher level of abstraction who barely understand what I do. Maybe framework developers feel the same way, or soon will. That doesn’t mean OSes are dead, though. People still need device drivers and filesystems and network stacks and schedulers and virtual memory and all that other stuff. OS development will continue, and OSes will continue to compete to capture developers’ hearts and minds. A significant number of people will be watching, and using the results directly to improve old frameworks or create new ones. In fact, the prevalence of framework-oriented workloads is causing a near-term increase in the amount of work that OS folks must do to accommodate those workloads. That doesn’t seem very dead to me.

IT is not dead. OSes are not dead. They’ve evolving. Those who get left behind might find themselves alone and think the party’s over, but in reality they just missed it.