Maturing Web technologies bring OS-less era closer to reality

In particular, HTML5 and sophisticated browsers are pushing software-based operating systems for computing into background, say market players, but industry analyst argues otherwise.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Once just a component of the conventional PC operating system (OS), Web browsers, together with the maturing HTML5, are now pushing traditional OSes deeper into the background as an OS-less era beckons, note industry observers. One analyst, however, believes this reality is still years away.

Christen Krogh, chief development officer of Opera Software, said today's concept of a browser-based OS relies heavily on the browser application and performance over dedicated applications. For instance, apps for weather, calendar, e-mail, news and social networks now work best on Web technology rather than those created specifically for a certain OS, he explained.

Krogh told ZDNet Asia that recent innovations such as WebGL for 3D graphics are helping developers create media-rich apps for Web browsers, too.

"Thus, it seems apparent that browsers are becoming more and more important, and that the reality of a truly browser-based OS is moving nearer," he pointed out.

Canalys' principal analyst Daryl Chiam, though, begs to differ. He said the current user experience that a dedicated app can provide "surpasses" that of most browser-based apps.

"This is not expected to change over the next few years, even as industry support for HTML5 grows," Chiam added in his e-mail.

Furthermore, many of the capabilities touted by Web apps revolve around HTML5, but the specification is still yet to be determined and standardized, Chiam noted.

He added that support for constituent elements in mobile device browsers, which have been commonly agreed on by industry players, remains inconsistently implemented.

The Canalys analyst also questioned whether connectivity would remain a bugbear for proponents of browser-based operating systems, even as cloud computing infrastructure matures.

"When a user is on the move and connectivity is not available, what is the experience working in an offline mode?

"The capabilities of presenting the user a full-fledged experience while offline and the synchronization of data when connectivity is re-established will be important," Chiam stressed.

Web apps work offline, too
Their comments were in response to Amazon's introduction of its Silk browser in September, which would be used as a gateway to deliver the Web giant's online content to its users and appears similar in concept to Google's Chrome OS.

Addressing the issues Chiam highlighted, a Google spokesperson acknowledged that "any advancement in technology comes with a security risk".

Any Web site, even legitimate ones, may be infected with malware and this makes both conventional OS-based PCs as well as browser-based devices vulnerable to attacks, she said.

Google has paid attention to this and designed its Chrome OS with the principle of "defense in depth" to provide multiple layers of protection, the spokesperson stated. These protections include "sandboxing, data encryption and verified boot", she added.

As for concerns the lack of connectivity would reduce these browser-based computing devices to "bricks", she said this was a "common misconception". She noted that for systems running Chrome OS, Google's Chrome Web Store offers many apps that work even when a user is offline or in an area with bad network connection.

"The offline APIs (application programming interfaces) in browsers have now been standardized and it's only a matter of time before they get adopted widely," the spokesperson added.

On Amazon's Silk browser, she said it was great that other providers of browser-based operating systems were innovating in the same space as Google. This, she noted, would create more choice for consumers and spur developers to continue to innovate and make improvements to their current offerings.

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