Will the Web Browser Replace the Operating System Desktop?

7 June 2011 by Matthew Gertner - Category: Rants and Ruminations

Like most of geekdom, I sat transfixed in front of my computer yesterday, first following Engadget’s live blog of Apple’s WWDC keynote and then watching the video of the event. A large part of Apple’s mind-bending success over the past few years can be attributed to the effort they have put into improving the user experience of the operating system desktop. Probably more even than the Mac’s slick hardware, the superiority of OS X over competitors has been driving users into Apple’s arms. Even more striking is the quantum leap that iOS (then iPhone OS) represented when it was launched in 2007. The iPhone has great hardware as well (the capacitive touch screen was particularly revolutionary), but iOS was clearly a major reason why so many people went bonkers over the new phone.

Apple is not standing still. They are continuing to improve the user experience of both of their operating systems. OS X is absorbing many of the most successful features of iOS while adding an array of other features like document versioning and better access to running apps. iOS has much better notifications, big improvements to Safari and a bunch of other stuff. You could argue that this is just so much unnecessary cruft designed to sell OS upgrades, but I don’t think so. I’m looking forward to a lot of the new features on both platforms because they will make a lot of my computer usage faster, easier and less error-prone.

Today I saw the announcement of a Webian, a prototype based on Mozilla Lab’s Chromeless initiative that aims to replace the operating system desktop with a browser-based interface. As the program’s author, Ben Francis, explains: “If you’re anything like me then you’ll find that most of the stuff you do on your PC these days happens in a web browser, and the desktop environment you used to depend on is now just getting in your way.”

There are certainly some merits to this idea. By getting rid of the OS desktop, we sever our ties with the physical computer we are working on. Everything can live in the cloud (are we still allowed to use that cliche?), and applications are downloaded and cached as needed, instead of cluttering up our disk until we eventually give up and buy a new computer. This means we can sit down at another machine, fire up our browser-based OS and experience exactly the same desktop environment as we do at home or in the office. Indeed, the notion of the browser becoming the OS has been around almost as long as the web, with Larry Ellison hawking his Network Computer as early as 1996. Google is making a big bet on this vision as well with Chrome OS, as most of the commentary about Webian was quick to bring up (the browser wars are back, baby!).

And yet I guess I”m not all that much like Ben, since I can’t bring myself to get excited about this idea. It’s not so much that a browser-based OS would lack so many of the features of a modern operating system like OS X, Windows or Ubuntu. Less features is often a very good thing in software design. But would you sell your car and ride around town in your refrigerator? It’s question of applying the right tool to the right task. Of course, the browser could be extended with all the OS desktop goodness, but why bother when there are billions in R&D being invested into ongoing OS development efforts by tech giants like Apple and Microsoft?

The truth is that the premise of the browser-as-OS gets it backwards. Applications built using web standards, downloaded on demand from the web, have a lot of advantages over traditional apps. And sure enough, the software world is shifting inexorably in this direction. What is needed is better integration of web apps into slick, modern operating system desktops, not the wholesale replacement of the latter with a souped up web browser.


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COMMENTS
  • http://Website Orrin

    I humbly disagree. One goal of the browser/OS is to kill file management (as we know it). Many users have trouble grasping that files are stored in folders on a disk and that new operating systems are setup to store your files in an efficient and organized manner. When I save something in Google Docs it isn’t stored in folders on a disk, it is stored in Google Docs, and the main file retrieval method promoted is Search. Likewise in iOS 5 documents, music, etc. are stored in the iCloud and users don’t need to know where (folder, path, etc.) something is stored because you have to open the application to get to the file.

    Initial version of Chrome OS included no way of viewing or organizing files downloaded or those on USB disks. With the introduction of the browser as the OS, the file manager will see the biggest hit because that layer of control by the user is becoming much weaker.

  • http://www.salsitasoft.com/ Matthew Gertner

    I totally agree, but jettisoning the confusing hierarchical file system and storing stuff in the cloud are different issues from replacing the OS desktop with a web browser interface. There’s no reason why a traditional OS can’t do this. In fact, we saw yesterday that OS X is moving in that direction and iOS is already there.

  • http://Website Wes

    I’m always surprised to people say “Probably more even than the Mac’s slick hardware, the superiority of OS X over competitors has been driving users into Apple’s arms.” I love my Mac hardware, but their desktop software feels like it is playing a lot of catchup anymore.

  • http://latosac.com Tim

    No, I don’t think so. I think this question needs to die. I do believe that web technology will fuse with the operating system.

  • http://Website skierpage

    Summary: You conflate browser-based with cloud-based, and those tech giants’ billions in R&D will obsolete Firefox, Opera, and Linux, and will hinder web apps, unless projects like webian succeed.

    “By getting rid of the OS desktop, we sever our ties with the physical computer we are working on.”

    No you don’t. file:/// URLs, or better yet some media:/// abstraction or GVFS or KIO to let you refer to your USB flash drives, network drives, etc. Sadly browsers don’t attempt a great file:/// implementation (as @Orrin says) and expect you to exit to the OS, but when I do so I abandon Panorama, bookmarks, history, Places search and tags, etc. for the OS’s painfully different implementation.

    “the browser could be extended with all the OS desktop goodness, but why bother when there are billions in R&D being invested into ongoing OS development efforts by tech giants like Apple and Microsoft?”

    Because: I spend most of my time in the browser but I *don’t* “live in the cloud” (sorry for the cliché), so I want useful OS goodness in my preferred browser.

    “What is needed is better integration of web apps into slick, modern operating system desktops, not the wholesale replacement of the latter with a souped up web browser.”
    No, what’s needed is an evolution of the OS UI beyond “desktop” that plays well with the web and cloud. Apple and Microsoft will indeed spend the billions to figure it out. But:

    1: Apple and Microsoft do not have the users’ best interests at heart. For example, their obsession to app-ify every network interaction in order to sell proprietary crApps at the company store, instead of making open web apps first-class citizens.

    2: If you leave this to “the tech giants” you’re saying Firefox, Opera, even Chrome will eventually no longer be the preferred browsers for the millions of people who don’t fully jump into living in the cloud. Oh well, no one ever guaranteed Firefox and Opera a living.

    3: The future looks bleak (or very conservative) for Linux users unless projects like webian, browser-centric distros, ChromeOS knockoffs, maybe GnomeOS 3.0+, etc. succeed in delivering their evolution of the OS UI. I wish them well, I wish they had billions in R&D.

    Thanks for the stimulating discussion!

  • http://home.kairo.at/blog/ Robert Kaiser

    I agree with you that I think the web browser itself should not replace the OS “desktop”, as the browser interface is wrong for there, but the technology very well might replace it – and Windows 8 seems to be going in that direction as well.

    What I strongly disagree with is talking about Apple as being “revolutionary”. Actually I don’t know of anything that Apple made that wasn’t actually invented somewhere else. They’re good in polishing things up, marketing them, closing out obstacles by building a golden cage – but that’s about the only thing they are very good at. Still, it accumulates into great success, and they earned it for those skills (though I always get furious about i, being a lover of openness above all). Oh, and they know which things others have come up with to pick up, build into this golden cage and polish until they can market them. That’s another good skill, no doubt about that. Nothing revolutionary, just knowing how to bring stuff into a certain market.

  • http://Website skierpage

    @Robert Kairo,
    How is the browser interface wrong for “the desktop”? In SeaMonkey or Firefox, a View > Sidebar > Directory View together with a better file:/// display would be excellent, and I’d get all the text zoom and copy, back-forward-bookmark, open in new tab, etc. goodness of a browser. Traditional desktop components like the Control Panel/Center are becoming more browser-like, and Mozilla windows like about:addons show that browser chrome can manipulate OS-like features, so why not about:os ? It’s just a simple matter of programming ;-)

  • http://Website Arkadiusz Dymalski

    No. I think that browser will not replace the desktop. Because (from the user perspective) we will stop distinguishing OS and web. I hope. And I hope it will happen by completely interwined integration of OS and web, not by reproducing OS in the browser, as it was already suggested above.