In the beginning, there was hardware. With early computers, operating systems were not really conceived separately from the hardware. Software was hard-coded into computing systems. Soon after, however, hardware became the means to run an operating system. All hardware was made to run with an operating system–usually Windows, after Microsoft became dominant. And the operating system, a type of software itself, ran software that made the computer useful. Hardware became secondary.
With time, the operating system has become secondary. We are moving into an age of standards, where only the file–the content–does not change. The hardware and software are irrelevant, because all will be able to access a file equally well. The Open Document Format is a huge step in this direction. But HTML, the backbone of every web page, began the move to standards. With the Internet, all computers needed to see the same things on the screen, whether Windows, Mac, or *nix. Then XML completed the form-content divorce. Content is all-important. Form–including the operating system presenting the content–is irrelevant.
The prevalence of alternative hardware, software/operating systems, and browsers has necessitated cross-platform solutions. Platform-irrelevant solutions, really.
Now, there is still a strong time-value incentive to stay with one system. That is because there is a learning curve to pick up any new operating system or piece of software. But the learning curve is disappearing with tools like Google Docs, OpenOffice.org and other platform-irrelevant software. Soon, anyone will be just as productive on a new computer system as on a familiar one. Platform-irrelevance.
Platform-irrelevance means users can choose the operating system they prefer, based on speed, reliability, appearance, whatever. It means there will be no need to have an all-Windows network to ensure all computers can communicate with one another. It means a Mac, Linux box, and Windows PC will happily coexist on one network, accessing one another and the same files.
For lawyers, platform-irrelevance means we need to begin moving away from software-dependent solutions like traditional case management software and begin moving to solutions based on procedures and standards. Proprietary is out, open source is in. Only open systems can provide the flexibility and mobility necessary in the coming years.