Browsers as the Operating System

google-chrome-logoI had a recent discussion with a colleague about the prospects of future ‘browsers’ moving into the space traditionally held by the operating system.  The idea is that browsers continue to develop and enhance their ability and features to the point that they take over the realm of the regular operating system.  We see some of these efforts specifically by Google which include products like Google Wave with online collaboration solutions, Google Docs with basic document editing capabilities, and even online storage of files which get handed over to untold data centers somewhere in the the stratosphere of the cloud.  It is true that certain mechanism are starting to make this shift like the prevalence of online storage and the like, but how far this will go is unknown.

It doesn’t really matter if what we use as the browser moves into these sectors; I don’t see it replacing the paradigm which is the operating system.  The operating system does more than just run applications and expand the possibilities of file storage.  It is the means by which the software utilizes and communicates to the hardware.  The host of drivers, interfaces, and interaction with the end user must all be handled by layers that are within the operating system.  In order for the “browser” to take over these roles, it would have to become the operating system simply integrated with more intrinsic web dependencies.  I suppose there could be ways of standardizing the interfaces so that any “browser” could access local hardware, sensors, and user input–but isn’t this just a lightweight os integrated with web features?

You would need a stable, broadband connection to push all these efforts to the browser only.  Our current systems stand paltry aside to provide the necessities that browser-cloud-centric systems would require.  If I lose my music collection I’m trying to listen to because my wireless signal is low or obscured, or even if I keep a large local cache on my device but have issues syncing content–it would kill this type of device.

Another issue in the world of servers and internet protocols.  Nothing is standard.  You may argue, “what about the W3 standards or the like?”  It is important to realize nobody adheres to current standards and much of the expertise in programming for them is to know how to appropriately hack or trick browsers to do what you want.  Furthermore browsers go about this problem each independently forcing more convolution and problems–not to mention that all content handled online must be back-compatible to be viewed.  HTML-5 has proposed to improve things, but this is a far cry from a complete solution.  The current internet is a collection of poorly coded, diversely deployed servers that can barely render correctly on the collection of fundamentally different browser rendering engines.  The only methods of implementing rich content available is to either use Flash, Adobe Air, or Microsoft Silverlight–none on which can provide a complete solutions on par with the full dynamics of a stand-alone application.  I’m not saying that standardization is impossible, or that future generations of what is now a browser ‘plug-in’ can’t advance and address these issues, I’m just pointing out the gap between current and required technologies that must be in place before even attempting to handle the needs and demands of a complete system.

On a different note, there really is acute benefit to moving files and content to the internet.  Making personal files available anywhere in the world using any computing device has its appeal.  So much so, that I have already implemented solutions for myself involving a custom web server.  Pushing more and more personal information to websites and data servers frees me from any particular computer or specific operating system.  Now IM clients are web apps and public information becomes online profiles.  This tells me that connectivity, online persona, and file storage will be the immediate browser to OS transferrals.

We will yet to see what will be the prevalent mode of operation.  Certainly for cell phones the prospects look very well undecided.  The likes of Google and Microsoft certainly will strive to win these spaces along with Apple, Nokia, and others.  As things continue to develop and push the boundaries of their original intent, eventually a paradigm will arise.  Whether or not this will be one that shifts from the old is yet to see.  There could be a future Browser OS or maybe just a browser-centric OS.

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