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Web 2.0: Changing the OS Paradigm

Posted by hs on December 1, 2005

The desktop Operating System (OS) scene has largely been cornered by Microsoft products in recent times. Apple has always maintained a dedicated niche market (mainly designers) and Linux (and other *nix) systems have been seen a preserve of geeks and nerds.

Operating systems have come a long way from the days of DOS (and loaders/linkers of the yore). In the DOS era, OS provided little functionality by itself. Compare that with the Operating Systems of today, where tons of functionality is integrated within the OS itself. Both approaches have their pros and cons.
Another revolution that has been taking place almost simultaneously is the emergence of Web browser as an application platform. True, there were thin clients and some browser-based applications earlier also, but most of them acted as web interfaces to applications running on servers rather than using the computational capabilities of the host.

Various technologies have contributed to the emergence of web apps, including greater availability of bandwidth. However, nothing has had more profound impact than something called AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript + XML). The term is relatively new, having being coined by Jesse James Garrett in his article Ajax: A New Approach to Web Applications (18 February, 2005).

The first popular applications using AJAX were launched by Google – Google Suggest & Google Maps. Although there have been some claims (and counter-claims) as to Microsoft having invented AJAX technologies, the term was first coined by Adaptive Path.

AJAX represents a fundamental shift in the way Internet works and forms the basis for what is called Web 2.0. Already there are lots of web apps springing up that might one day usurp the dominant place that desktop products hold in everyday computing today. An Internet-based word processor might have been dismissed as a flight of fancy a year ago, but today there already are working products doing precisely what was considered not possible. Writely is a web word processor, and so is gOFFICE. gOFFICE currently provides Word processing features and is expected to launch Spreadsheets & Presentations soon. One of the coolest features of gOFFICE is the ability to save the documents online and get them delivered in multiple formats, including PDF. Writely too allows users to save the documents offline in Word, HTML or OpenDocument formats. And since both (and other similar packages) are in a heavy development stage, one can expect many more features to be added in near future.
What does rise of web-based apps means for traditional applications, for example Microsoft Office in this case? Surprisingly enough, Microsoft has been pretty quick to latch onto the web apps bandwagon. It has already announced plans to offer various offerings under its Live platform – including Office Live and Windows Live Mail beta (that just went online).

Although it might be rather premature to say it at this stage, I do not see any major threat to desktop-based apps in the near future. There are situations where web apps fit better, and adoption rate would be pretty high in those areas. But there is a totally seperate market which has not been served till now (cheap, mobile access) which would be eager to adopt the web apps, hence minimizing any cannibalization between the two markets.

The question then is: how does Web 2.0 impact the OS paradigm as we know it? OS would continue to develop, but they would share their role as the platform for running applications to web browsers. At some point in near future, the web browser would turn into a formidable competition for OS itself. A class of applications that require extensive user interface or have formidable data requirements would continue to reside on local machines, but other applications, like email would move onto the web apps model. Even mainstream mail service providers like Yahoo! Mail are now testing highly interactive web app versions of their mail services, and this trend is only going to grow stronger.

Even tasks like audio & video which were not thought of as web-oriented apps are increasingly being delivered over the Internet, helped by increased bandwidths and better compression formats. Experiments like Google Video hold a lot of promise.

Operating Systems might again start moving towards minimalness – provide a comprehensive interface between the hardware and applications, and little else. The apps of the future would do better to harness the underlying hardware than rely on OS for that purpose. Thus, an ideal OS might be the one that is transparent to the user, and one which provides just about enough power to applications without doing little else. A extreme (and probably ridiculous enough) paradigm: an OS that makes running apps as effortless as human breathing – vital, but largely going unnoticed.
And, needless to say, Web Browser would be the most significant component of the future operating systems. No wonder there’s a battle raging out there between Internet Explorer and its (mainly open-source) rivals (Firefox, Safari).

PS: What would such an OS be called? BreathOS!

Keywords: OS, Paradigm, Browser, Application platform, Transparent OS, Evolution, AJAX, Web 2.0, Google Suggest, Google Maps, Adaptive Path

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3 Responses to “Web 2.0: Changing the OS Paradigm”

  1. Jen said

    Singh, FYI Writely also online document storage and allows saving documents offline as Word, HTML or OpenDocument format. We’ll be adding even more formats soon!

  2. hs said

    #Jen
    Sorry for the oversight. Post updated.

  3. […] (continued from previous post: Web 2.0: Changing the OS Paradigm) […]

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