Weighing in on the browser as the new OS

Weighing in on the browser as the new OS

Summary: 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.

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TOPICS: Browser
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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?

Topic: Browser

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21 comments
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  • The PC is dead! The PC is dead! Yeah ? right.

    Thin client computing has kept on trying to take down the PC, ever since the PC significantly displaced it in the 80s. When all is said and done however, it is generally far better to have a rich client app than a thin client app running on your PC or device. All rich client apps have to do, is incorporate all the advantages of thin client apps into themselves, and then maybe go several steps beyond what is possible with thin client apps.

    Rich client apps will always be many times more sophisticated than web apps, and with the use of web services, can exhibit all the advantages of web apps several times over. As for the idea of the browser being a new, neutral OS / app platform: such a dream is not possible, because companies need to be able to differentiate themselves from one another as effectively as possible, and the neutral browser idea would not support it. Would you like proof of this? Look at the differentiation that has taken place in the database market away from standards. Also look at Java with companies making their own extensions to the framework, and also the many, many flavors of Linux.

    Web 2.0 is nothing more than a dream. Desktop apps augmented with web services, in addition to many types of RIAs, will displace many higher end web apps, because they are more effective, easier to develop, and can bring far more functionality to users flexibly and efficiently.
    P. Douglas
    • The next generation won't want to pay for, install, update, and patch

      desktop applications. The also will want their applications and files to be universally available wherever there is a computer (or device) with browser and internet connection.

      And, as time goes on and network bandwidth, back-end processing power, and storage become infinite, those web applications will be able to do a lot of cool things that desktop apps won't be able to do.

      You are just stuck in the last century with your thinking.
      DonnieBoy
      • Oh, and this does not mean that MS has to lose for this to be a reality, MS

        may very well figure out how to make a critical percentage of cool web applications depend on Windows, so that the only way to have access to all of the new cool web applications is to run Windows.

        Time will tell . . . .
        DonnieBoy
      • Nothing that you said undermined my arguments

        Lightweight RIAs can have as great a reach as more sophisticated web apps (bringing all the advantages of web apps such as no installation, need for update, etc. to the table) yet deliver a significantly better user experience, and reduced net traffic. Also these apps will be a lot easier to develop, and will be much more functional than comparable web apps. Also, RIAs that are installed on users? computers, can make the installation and management process very straightforward and relatively trouble free, while yielding advantages web apps cannot touch ? such high quality media playback, and the ability to use offline. As for very sophisticated RIAs, or desktop apps augmented with web services, they will be able to deliver functionality far greater than any web app can.

        One important flaw with your argument concerning increased available bandwidth and server processing power in the future: applications will always have to be developed as efficiently as possible in order to compete in the market place. It is not reasonable to expect the market will accept web apps that hog bandwidth, over RIAs that use less bandwidth resources, yet deliver greater functionality, and can be used in a broader array of Internet connection scenarios.
        P. Douglas
        • You still have to install them, they ain't universally available on any

          computer (or device) connected to the web, you have to pay for them if you get them from Microsoft, and, you have to pay again and go through the hassle of updating at some point, . . . . . .

          And your bandwidth argument that somehow web appications won't be able to use cheap and plentiful bandwidth to their advantage is about as stupid as it gets. Yes, they will still have watch how they use it, but there will be 100x more to use. Couple that with unlimited back-end processing power and storage, and web applications will be able to do some amazing things you can't do with a tired old desktop application.
          DonnieBoy
          • Not necessarily

            [i]You still have to install them, they ain't universally available on any
            computer (or device) connected to the web, you have to pay for them if you get them from Microsoft, and, you have to pay again and go through the hassle of updating at some point, . . . . . . [/i]

            Didn't you read what I wrote? There are some RIAs you will have to install, and there are others you won?t have to install. I believe the latter will be the larger set of RIAs. Those that have to be installed will give users advantages they simply would not be able to enjoy using non-installed programs - such as offline use.

            [i]And your bandwidth argument that somehow web appications won't be able to use cheap and plentiful bandwidth to their advantage is about as stupid as it gets. Yes, they will still have watch how they use it, but there will be 100x more to use. Couple that with unlimited back-end processing power and storage, and web applications will be able to do some amazing things you can't do with a tired old desktop application.[/i]

            You are just talking. People aren?t going to choose web apps that are bandwidth hogs, over comparable RIAs apps that provide much more functionality, using a fraction of the bandwidth required by their competitors.
            P. Douglas
          • Yes, web applications should not waste bandwidth, but it will be much

            cheaper and more plentiful, such that they will be able to use a lot more in the future to deliver some pretty amazing applications when coupled with massive ammounts of back-end processing power and storage.
            DonnieBoy
        • Can I get a word in here? ;^)

          I hate to interrupt - you two are having so much fun ;^)

          Look - an RIA or a browser-based web app supports my general point that the notion of a PC-centric work style is becoming an anachronism. There will always be a need for rich functionality but if it can reside on a U3-enabled thumb drive, or a MojoPac-type virtualized environment on an iPod, or a thin and light high-density flash hard drive and be connected to different devices, that's the shift I'm most interested in discussing.

          Donnie has a defined positioned he's been articulating for as long as I've been writing this blog - he sees a future where the infinite interweb provides all the bandwidth, processing power, and storage needed to produce a compeliing experience for the user within the limitations of the device being used at the moment.

          You, OTOH, seem to be arguing that the best experience will continue to be provided by the PC running a local app or RIA with the net providing real-time access to data and a collaboration capability. That's a vision much in line with what Ray Ozzie has proposed in his continuum model.

          Time will tell which way we end up going. Either alternative is a step forward, albeit in different directions. My sense of things, having my own laboratory of 20-somethings in my daughter's world and mid-teens in my son's to observe is that the next generation will favor mobility over richness if push comes to shove.

          The again, a few years ago, I would have laughed out loud if someone had suggested that people would actually pay money to download television shows and watch them on tiny screens. So what do I know?
          morchant
          • RIAs are not just for PCs - they are for devices as well

            My point is that the best user experiences will be with local apps with Internet / web services extensions, along with RIAs. But this model is not confined to the PC. It extends to all devices. Therefore I expect RIAs on Smartphones to become popular over time, and Internet sites to support the sniffing out of devices accessing sites, and the serving out of appropriate applications to devices accessing their sites. Therefore Yahoo could e.g. have a home page that examines a device, and serves up a Smartphone RIA if the device can support it, or a PC RIA if the device / PC can support it, or a regular web app as its lowest common denominator application.
            P. Douglas
          • That's a promising vision

            I hope to see it become a reality. I was discussing a vision at the recent Office 2.0 Conference of a smart mobile device that could connect to "work pods" -- essentially a box with additional processors, memory, large display, and input peripherals in the cafes, libraries, and business centers of the near future. We fantasized about a new business class on airlines where this connectivity was built into the seat. Hotel rooms where a workstation awaited your portable brain. You get the idea.

            The ultimate dream is to be more mobile, carry less, and laways have access to a really rich experience in the most common environments encountered by the increasing number of nomads wandering among us.
            morchant
          • UMPCs

            I expect UMPCs to become very popular. They along with web services and RIAs, should allow you to do much of the things you dreamt up.
            P. Douglas
          • Think of . . .

            the devices on a Sci-fi show that was on a few years ago, called "Earth-Final Conflict". It was a small, expandable device that was used for communications (video, etc.), and as a general Internet-access device, along with some other functions. That would be the kind of device you guys seem to be shooting for. You wouldn't need a workstation to plug into, eventually. Just an access point of some kind.
            jlhenry62
          • The best user experience is when your app is available on all connected

            devices, and you do NOT have to install it, update it, patch it, backup the data, etc.

            Desktop applications that must be installed and paid for, and are not universally available, will be very unpopular with the next generation.
            DonnieBoy
  • Some things that will slow the transition

    The current PC- or network-based environment has a whole slew of dangers and aggravations. But the 2.0 environment also has some that may cause many of us to prefer the devil we know:
    * Internet access is not ubiquitous for most people.
    * If I am smart and stay educated, I can protect the security of documents on my desktop either completely or from all but a determined, concerted attack. With an online service, the only thing that protects the security of my documents is the good will of the hosting company.
    * Hard drives can irretrievably crash. So can Web 2.0 companies.
    * I will be able to choose not to upgrade to, for example, Office 2007 if my current software meets my needs, if I can't afford it, or if I don't want to learn the new package. If a 2.0 vendor upgrades, so do all the users -- whether they like it or not.
    * It is not clear to me, anyway, that a $10 monthly service makes more fiscal sense than a $200 purchase.

    Gripe, gripe, gripe. :)
    rpederse
  • Toss JS

    [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).]

    Only if they (the browser providers) can agree on the language(s) to bundle in with the browser. Javascript SUX!!!!!!!!!!!!! and until that gets a SUBSTANTIAL upgrade (say to Ruby), web apps will be so-so slow (its ONLY link to Java . . .).
    Roger Ramjet
    • There's good stuff coming

      Roger - Ruby is only way possibility. Apollo is another. There's a ton of work being done to refine and improve JS performance. We're at the beginning of a great curve from the early peeks I've had at what's coming in the near future.
      morchant
      • It has to be built in

        to the browser. External stuff like Java is too limited/slow. I'm saying - re engineer the browser with Ruby as the *base* language instead (of in addition to) JS.
        Roger Ramjet
    • Could not agree more, we do need a better execution environment for

      rich interactive web applications. Some also need to be able to cache themselves and the data for offline use, such as email, word processing, etc. For some that would use massive ammounts of back-end storage and processing power, offline use makes not sense.

      But, what will the language be?? I bet the guys at Google are working overtime on adding a cool execution environment to Firefox. Forget about trying to get MS to agree on anything, they want to kill the browser so that people will use the new proprietary things bundled into Windows to make rich Internet enabled application (do NOT call them rich web applications!). If we had some killer apps that only worked on Firefox, that would drive Firefox adoption, and force MS to include the same execution environment into IE.
      DonnieBoy
  • Like it, sort of...

    This is NOT a new idea. Years ago, this was talked about, but now it can work. Broadband + reliable browser (Firefox/Opera) = a legit environment. Throw in Google-like services, and you are in like flint.

    http://opendomain.blogspot.com/
    opensourcepro
    • There are no new ideas

      At least that's what Frederick Goudy, the famous type designer, is reported to have said a long, long time ago. While you can take issue with the objective accuracy of that bit of profundity, it is true that there are many examples of good ideas conceived before their time. Sometimes they're called science fiction. Other times, they're called failures.

      Just because a good idea failed the first (or second) time it was attempted doesn't mean it is without merit and should not be revisited as circumstances change. I think that's what we're experiencing in this _______ 2.0 world we're entering (fill in the preceding blank with your favorite descriptor).
      morchant