If I asked you to name the internets dominant operating system, youd probably nominate Linux, Windows or possibly Solaris. My answer would be none of the above. Increasingly, our most value-adding interface layer is Google—and our industrys annals of operating system wars and browser wars are looking ever more like ancient history.
It might seem odd to call a Web search engine an operating system, but look at the fundamentals. The OS is the software layer, preferably invisible during normal tasks, that hides the details of resources behind a uniform interface that makes those resources more useful. Storage devices, for example, appear in a single list when you summon up a File Open dialog, regardless of the differences among floppy disks, hard drives, flash memory cards and other bit containers. Document files on those devices open with the proper applications, without your needing to tell the system what to use. The OS provides a means for applications to interact with hardware and for users to interact with data and applications.
Some have said this makes the browser the new incarnation of the OS, but the browser is just another thin layer whose job is to be easily ignored. When Im booting a machine, I dont really want to care whether its loading Windows or Mac OS X or some other flavor of hindbrain; as for browsers, I just want them to render pages correctly and integrate applications seamlessly. Im ready to get to work when the top of my software stack is a browser, in my own case, usually Mozilla, that makes Google an integral part of my workspace.
Google virtualizes the Net, protecting me from disappearing Web pages with its extensive page cache; partitioning news, opinion, reference materials, catalogs and other classes of information with its growing array of special search options. Much of what I used to do (or wish I could do) from a DOS or Unix command line, I now do from a Mozilla search and navigation field. And just as my command-line interactions evolved in the direction of programmed custom functions defined by scripting languages, so is Google becoming a programmable platform for both ad hoc and prepackaged services.
Last year saw the beginning of Google as an application platform with elgooG, the virtual search site that allowed users to send and receive reverse-spelled queries and results; it made life more difficult for the Internet censors employed by repressive regimes. There are more opportunities emerging in “Google Hacks,” a newly published OReilly book by Tara Calishain and Rael Dornfest. Although the book begins with tips on browser-accessible behaviors such as advanced date-based searching, it quickly dives into script-driven and otherwise automated functions. One powerful example is the extension of Googles search criteria to include proximity of words, but thats just the beginning of the transformation.
Internet search is becoming more deeply integrated into distributed functions and services. Increasingly, our interactions with the Net will be through task-focused applications in, say, logistics or procurement using massive, sophisticated search farms as our repository for data today and for more active resources such as supplier bid management tomorrow. Program-to-program interactions, using messaging standards and XML-based data formats, make Google and semantic-Web competitors, including Microsofts notable research efforts, the operating system for a worldwide network of loosely coupled machines and databases.
Network search still serves interactive users by letting them enter search terms into text fields and choose from the Web pages thus found. Apples Sherlock expands on this idea with awareness of a users location, and location-based services using GPS or other position technologies will prove valuable in retail and entertainment.
At some point, though, we wont be able to take full advantage of expanding resources with better tools for doing it ourselves. Well need to package functions in the way that spreadsheet templates became the successors to multibuttoned handheld calculators; well get more done, but well give up some of our visibility into the process.
Its time to start developing skills and strategies to make these technologies a tool for your own competitive advantage—before your customers, competitors and suppliers redefine your view of the Net on their terms.