Weighing in on the browser as the new OS

In a new column for Business 2.0, Om Malik spins a familiar tune we've all heard before: the browser is the new, platform-agnostic OS and online applications are Microsoft's worst nightmare. Between the artfully crafted title tag and headline on his post, there's enough fightin' words to inspire a good old-fashioned food fight.

Some memes in the online conversation are like songs that get played often on the radio. Remember the radio? That medium we used to listen to before we all became pod people? If you like the song, that's a good thing. If you're sick of hearing the same tune, not so much.

In a new column for Business 2.0, Om Malik spins a familiar tune we've all heard before: the browser is the new, platform-agnostic OS and online applications are Microsoft's worst nightmare. Between the artfully crafted title tag and headline on his post, there's enough fightin' words to inspire a good old-fashioned food fight.

Om argues that things are changing (when are they not?) and a new proliferation of increasingly powerful and highly mobile devices, paired with the AJAXy goodness of 2.0 applications is the harbinger of a real sea change this time around. ZDNet's David Berlind, avoiding the fracas directly, chimes in with a very nice analogy to the movie Dreamscape to illustrate the recurring nature of this particular nightmare for the folks in Redmond.

Of course, no ZDNet post on a topic like this can be declared a true success without a bit of banter in the comments and ZDNet blogger George Ou jumps into the comments thread on David's post with his opinion that this is all, to quote the Bard, sound and fury signifying nothing.

Same song, played one too many times.

Or is it?

I think Om gets it right. It's not just that new generation of online apps are better (they are) or that future incarnations of the browser will be tuned to provide a better web-based application experience (they will). He points to the increased availability of affordable devices that are establishing a new portability/price/performance ratio we've not seen before and writes:

Things will get more exciting for entrepreneurs when we all start walking around with new Internet-ready portable devices such as the Nokia 770 Internet tablet or smartphones such as the Motorola Q and Nokia E61.

These pocket-size monsters with keyboards, luscious displays, and brisk 3G connections will soon replace laptops. All they need are browsers that can access Web-based software as easily as your desktop can. (I already use a Nokia E61 to help manage my website and write short blog posts from within the phone's browser. Soon I'll be able to run the whole site from my phone's browser.)

This is the giggle factor that give this old tune a reason to be played again. The shift away from PC-centric computing is underway. There are three additional qualifications that I toss into the mix:

  1. It won't happen overnight
  2. It's not going to be embraced by everyone all at once.
  3. It's not a zero sum game.

Once you accept those three statements, most of the black-or-white, yea-or-nay arguments fail to hold water. Steve Jobs, upon his return to Apple said in his first MacWorld keynote during which he announced a new deal with Microsoft that "we have to let get of the idea that in order for us to win, Microsoft has to lose". The sincerity of that statement notwithstanding, the sentiment is perfectly applicable to the current state of affairs.

Microsoft will continue to sell tons of Office, Exchange, and SharePoint. They're all proven products that solve problems for many organizations and individuals. They're mature, they're safe (from a purchasing perspective if not always from an info security angle), and they're built on a client-server model that is not predicated on ubiquitous access to the cloud via broadband.

But there is a new generation entering the workplace that hasn't grown up in that client-server world and that is not mired in the legacy mindset of "all my stuff on my PC" that many of us have always accepted as the way things work. They prefer lightweight mobile apps over monolithic desktop tools. They have fewer issues with storing their stuff in the cloud. And they prefer the real-time exchange of ideas information offered by SMS to the asynchronous albeit richer interactions provided by e-mail.

The sea change is coming. It's not a tsunami, although I predict that there will be some spectacular waves from time to time. But just as the ocean continually changes the coastline, the migration to online apps and an increasing amount of work, online or offline, being accomplished in the browser is inexorable, ongoing, and inescapable. Can you hear the music?

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