Google Outage Dims OS X Tiger Debut

Opinion: Rude reminder of network frailty blunts Web-intensive Dashboard's edge.

You couldnt choreograph a more ironic pas de deux than the debut of Apples OS X 10.4, with its Web-intensive Dashboard of data-tracking "widgets," followed just nine days later by a multihour outage of several Google services.

The first event illustrated, not just with a developer-conference demo but in an actual shipping product, the difference that results when always-on connections are designed in rather than added on to an end-user environment.

The second event was a rude reminder that "always-on connection" borders on an oxymoron, or at any rate tempts the Fates to rub our noses in technologys fallibility.

I didnt expect to be all that impressed by the OS X 10.4 Dashboard. After all, Borlands original Sidekick debuted back on DOS: Exploiting the bizarre Terminate and Stay Resident hack, it achieved a limited form of multitasking on an operating system that really couldnt handle it. Even so, people loved its support for their interrupt-driven way of work. I doubted that Dashboard would be much more than a graphically improved take on the same idea.

What makes Dashboard much more interesting than I expected is the combination of Web services on the back end, at least for the widgets that I find actually useful, and Web standards-based authoring on the front end. With a user interface defined by HTML and Cascading Style Sheets, and dynamic behavior defined in JavaScript, a widget is relatively straightforward to develop--and robust in operation thanks to the fact that it runs on a real Unixoid operating system. Very cool.

Before we get too excited, though, its important to look at Dashboards capabilities through the lens of the networks imperfections. When Sun trumpets its long use of the mantra, "The Network is the Computer," I bite back the temptation to retort that Id never pay for a computer that behaves as badly as a network: one where any given memory address, for example, might or might not respond to a read or write operation at any given time, or where devices might come and go without warning.

My concerns about network inconsistency and volatility are substantial even in benign environments: Things get much worse when someone actually is out to get you with, for example, a man-in-the middle attack that obtains valuable information just from knowing what questions youre asking.

Much of the hoopla over Apples OS X centers on its Spotlight feature, integrating search on multiple attributes of data objects into a readily accessible and minimally complex user interface. Perhaps the next generation of users will fully appreciate it: Having grown up with hierarchical data organization, I may never really get the most from the ability not to do that anymore.

Im much more interested in OS X 10.4 as a client operating environment that doesnt treat the Web as something to see through the rectangular window of a browser, but rather as a source of data and function that infuses anything I might want to know or do. Thats a great goal. It falls, not just to infrastructure builders to give us a Net that good, but to service providers and application developers to make the Net look better than it is.

Tell me how youll make the Net look better at