A little more than 10 years ago, an idea rose around what many at the time perceived as the next generation of computing—the concept of the browser as operating system.
In those go-go days of the early Web, many pundits and technology leaders looked at the massive success of Netscape Communications and at the newfound promise of Java and proclaimed that operating systems would cease to be important—that applications would be written for the browser and mainly delivered over the Web.
Given the fact that browsers were still fairly rudimentary 10 years ago and that the vast majority of people were still on dial-up connections, I didnt buy into the idea of the browser as OS at the time. However, many people did take this idea very seriously, including those in leadership at Microsoft.
Microsoft didnt jump into the browser wars out of Netscape envy or the sheer desire to be the leader in every category. Looking back, Microsoft was clearly worried about the Web browser becoming the true operating system, which would have relegated Windows to DOS-like plumbing status.
And Microsoft certainly took care of business: By destroying Netscape and nearly taking total control of the Web browser market, the company was able to de-emphasize the importance of the browser—calling its browser, Internet Explorer, simply a feature of the Windows OS—and work on its plans to change the Web from something that was viewed in browsers to something that interacted with applications (with Windows applications being the key).
The last two years, however, have brought massive changes to browser and Web markets and technologies—changes that have actually made the concept of the browser as operating system more viable than ever.
The first major development was the rebirth of what was once the core Netscape browser code—first as Mozilla and then, more important, as Firefox. By showing the world what a real modern Web browser could do, Firefox made significant inroads into IEs market share. The success of Firefox also has forced Microsoft to beef up IE.
The continuing maturity of service-based enterprise applications also has made users much more comfortable about using apps that are run over the Web and delivered to a Web browser. And, with the recent growth of AJAX, browser-based applications now have a level of GUI sophistication and interactivity that makes them nearly indistinguishable from those that run directly on an operating system.
All these developments have been enough to make even me a believer in the potential of the browser as OS. After all, to a large degree, Im already living the concept.
On the messaging and collaboration front, Im almost 100 percent browser-based: I access the majority of my mail accounts through Webmail and perform most group collaboration through browser-based applications. I also perform a great deal of analysis and content production within my browser.
Ive also been sharing and working on spreadsheet content that is delivered through a browser-based application—Google Spreadsheets. This application works identically whether Im on my Linux-based main desktop at work, my Windows XP system at home or my Mac OS X laptop. In the case of Google Spreadsheets, the browser truly is the operating system.
Now, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I should note that these developments are still early. I am using desktop-based applications less than I used to, but there are still several significant ones that I have to use on a daily basis. And even many of the best browser-based applications need the assistance of local desktop applications on a regular basis.
But the idea of the browser as operating system is clearly back and may be stronger than ever. Of course, the browser wont truly be an operating system until people start writing security applications specifically for it.
Wait, Microsoft is working on a BrowserShield to protect IE? Hmm. I guess Microsoft is once again a believer.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.