It seems mightily ironic that it should be a new browser release from Microsoft, of all people, that finally treats websites as applications. It's been a long time coming — a decade at least — but I felt a sense of quiet satisfaction when I read Ed Bott's review of the IE9 beta release, especially the second page on treating websites as apps.
I still remember back in 1999-2000 being shown a number of so-called web operating systems, which attempted to turn the browser into a workspace that both emulated and sought to replace the Windows desktop. Now Microsoft itself is conspiring to turn the browser into an application windowing system that, while tuned to take advantage of the underlying client environment, is at the same time independent of it.
IE9 effaces itself by adopting a minimalist frame and giving users the option of pinning shortcuts to individual websites to the desktop taskbar, treating them as if they were applications in their own right. Those shortcuts open a new browser window that's branded with the website's favicon and its dominant color, but which can still have other sites open in tabs within in it. Ed explains the advantage of this:
"It didn’t take long for me to begin creating groups of three or four related tabs for a common activity. For example, I have my blog’s home page pinned to the Taskbar, and I usually open Google Analytics and the WordPress dashboard for the site. Keeping those three tabs in a single group makes it easy for me to click the ZDNet icon on my Taskbar and find one of those tasks, which previously were scattered among dozens of open tabs."
This is a welcome convenience that underlines how dependent many of us now are on web-based applications in our daily routines. But as more and more applications shift to the cloud, we'll want much deeper integration between them than this (the phrase 'lipstick on a pig' comes to mind). IE9 will make it marginally easier to find your Salesforce.com contact list when a prospect email arrives in your Gmail inbox, but it's hardly going to transform the way you work. For that, you'll want much deeper integration of both data and process, all of which will take place in the cloud or the browser. IE9 moves the focus up off the desktop into the browser, and in doing so concedes the supremacy of cloud computing.