is one of the world’s most popular team communication tools. It was recently acquired by Salesforce, with the announcement that they were “creating the business operating system for the new world of work”.
Unpacking that analogy, the operating system on a computer provides the underlying infrastructure that allows users, applications, and other devices to interact with that computer effectively. Operating systems have evolved over decades, largely with the goal of increasingly simplifying the process of interacting with the computer. By definition, a computer enables the processing of information and instructions, supplemented by data storage, and various human and machine interfaces.
An operating system abstracts away the complexity of the underlying computer. “Abstraction” in computer terms means that underlying complexity is hidden so that humans or other systems can more easily interact with that system. Even babies and some animals can interact with touch screens, because the operating system has abstracted away all of the complexity involved in detecting touch and changing the visual appearance in response.
If well-designed, a computer provides infinite leverage for processing information, requiring only electricity and (increasingly small amounts of) time to process massive amounts of data. The overwhelmingly high valuation of technology companies on the stock market comes from this fundamental efficiency: a well-designed technology can be leveraged to create endless value. Hardware is especially valuable for its versatility: the same computing or storage hardware can be put to infinite uses. Software is especially valuable for its reproducibility. There is zero marginal cost to replicate a software program.
An operating system is software that is meant to stay in the background and be almost invisible to the users. It’s like infrastructure (roads, electricity, running water, …) in that once it’s built, people forget about it but it enables them to perform countless other activities. Therefore an operating system is especially valuable for enabling humans and other software applications to interact smoothly and effectively with the underlying hardware, and with other computers.
Salesforce and Slack’s wish to become “the business operating system” speaks to a wish to become a ubiquitous foundation that enables an ecosystem of people and applications.
In a world relying principally on physical interactions between people and the creation and delivery of physical goods, governments are the maintainers of infrastructure. Governments are tied to physical space - they create infrastructure in that physical space to keep people safe and healthy and to enable physical businesses. They collect taxes and tariffs to be able to sustain their operation.
In a world that is increasingly digital, the meaning of infrastructure changes dramatically. The technology titans who maintain the underlying infrastructure for people to communicate and businesses to be effective wield enormous influence, and can accumulate enormous wealth.
As with governments, there are efficiencies of scale. One accountant can just as easily perform math on numbers in the thousands, millions, billions, or trillions. But just as with governments, there is enormous variance between the efficiency of those entities, their motivation, and the controls in place to reduce the risk of corruption and harm.