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The Browser Is the OS (Thanks to Firefox 3.5, Chrome 2, Safari 4)

Sam Johnston

Almost a year ago I wrote about Google Chrome: Cloud Operating Environment and [re]wrote the Google Chrome Wikipedia article, discussing the ways in which Google was changing the game through new and innovative features. They had improved isolation between sites (which is great for security), improved usability (speed dial, tear off tabs, etc.) and perhaps most importantly for SaaS/Web 2.0 applications, vastly improved the JavaScript engine.

Similar features were quickly adopted by competitors including Opera (which Chrome quickly overtook at ~2%) and Firefox (which still has an order of magnitude more users at ~20-25%). Safari is really making waves too at around 1/3-1/2 of the share of Firefox (~8%) and with the recent release of Safari 4 it's a compelling alternative — especially given it passes the Acid 3 test with flying colours while Firefox 3.5 bombs out at 93/100.

HTML 5 features such as local storage and the video and audio elements are starting to make their way into the new breed of browsers too, though it's still often necessary to install Google Gears to get advanced offline functionality (e.g. most of the Google Apps suite) up and running. Google have drawn fire by missing the Firefox 3.5 launch and users finding Gears disabled are flocking to the gears-users Google Group to vent their frustrations, some going so far as claiming that "Google is trying to do what it can to push users to Chrome" and asking "Are we watching a proccess of Google becoming customer-deaf Microsoft?". Let's just hope it's ready in time for my travel later this week…

The point is that after the brutal browser wars which stagnated the web for some time (right up until Microsoft opened the floodgates by introducing Ajax), we're now starting to see some true competition again. Granted Internet Explorer is still a 1,000 pound gorilla at ~65% of market share, but even with a silk shirt in the form of IE 8 and a handful of lame ads it's still a pig and the target of the vast majority of security exploits on the web. This makes it an an easy sell for any competitor who manages to get a foot in the door (which is unfortunately still the hardest part of the sale).

The decision not to ship IE with Windows 7 in Europe will be interesting as it should draw mainstream attention to the alternatives which will flow on to other markets (as we've seen with adoption of "alternative" technology like Linux in the past — not to mention the whole Netbook craze started by OLPC in the third world). However, with the browser being where most of the action is today the operating system has become little more than a life support system for it — an overly thick interface layer between the browser and the hardware. Surely I'm not the only one who finds it curious that while the software component of a new computer is fast approaching 50% of the cost (up from around 10% a decade ago), the heart of the system (the browser) is both absent from Windows 7 and yet freely available (both in terms of beer and freedom)? Something's gotta give…

Anyway it's time to stop looking at the features and performance of the underlying operating system, rather the security and scalability of the browser. When was the last time you turned to the operating system anyway, except to fix something that went wrong or do some menial housekeeping (like moving or deleting files)?

By Sam Johnston, Director, Cloud & IT Services at Equinix
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Think "Aubsive Monopolist" The Famous Brett Watson  –  Jul 01, 2009 9:16 PM PDT

Surely I'm not the only one who finds it curious that while the software component of a new computer is fast approaching 50% of the cost (up from around 10% a decade ago), the heart of the system (the browser) is both absent from Windows 7 and yet freely available (both in terms of beer and freedom)?

There's nothing terribly curious about it, surely? It's just an expected (and increasingly conspicuous) effect of an abusive monopoly. Perhaps it's curious if, in your mental model of the world, Microsoft's most recent US trial, conviction, and punishment for antitrust violation actually solved the issue it was meant to address.

Anyway it's time to stop looking at the features and performance of the underlying operating system, rather the security and scalability of the browser. When was the last time you turned to the operating system anyway, except to fix something that went wrong or do some menial housekeeping (like moving or deleting files)?

The user isn't the primary target audience of the OS: the applications are. The "features" of the OS may not be all that important, unless you count "ability to interoperate with various hardware components like printers, scanners, cameras, modems, TV cards, network cards, display adapters, storage devices" and so on. If security is your concern, however, then you can't ignore the OS. No application is ever going to be more secure than the OS on which it is based, except to the extent that the application avoids using the OS, which rather defeats the purpose of having one.

So it's nice to have a choice of browsers, and it's nice that the competition is fostering some improvement among the lesser (in terms of market share) players. This does not render Microsoft's on-going stranglehold over the OS market harmless, however. Indeed, it makes me wonder where operating systems would be today if non-Microsoft operating systems had the same kind of (still meagre) market share that non-Microsoft browsers do. Think likewise for office application suites.

The role of the OS Sam Johnston  –  Jul 02, 2009 3:45 AM PDT

Brett,

No arguments from me on the first point. On the second (the role of the OS), I think we'll soon enough see it fade into the background. The browser will be the central focus perhaps along with some applets like the dialer on a mobile phone. Devices will become increasingly embedded/disposable and based on many different hardware platforms and operating systems. There'll be no user-serviceable parts inside and likely a silent, background update system for security issues.

That is to say, yes, something needs to talk to the hardware and that will still be an operating system, but everything will pretty much turn into a Mac - that is, the hardware provider will control the software/firmware as well.

Sam

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