Monday, December 15, 2008

Browser OS

From GigaOm
With the release on Monday of a software platform known as
Native Client, Google has moved even closer to fulfilling the
early promise of a “web operating system” — a
vision originally offered by browser-software pioneer Netscape

Over a decade ago, Netscape was the technology name that made
users smile and competitors tremble. And one of the things that
kept Microsoft awake at night was the fear that Marc
Andreessen’s company might be able to turn the browser
into a kind of web OS. Using a new software scripting language
known as Java, the theory went, Netscape would be able to offer
services and features through the web browser that would compete
head on with software installed on PCs.

That fear was a big part of the impetus for Bill Gates’s
famous “Internet tidal wave” memo in 1995, and it
was also a big reason why Microsoft started pushing its own
scripting language for the browser, known as ActiveX. As it
turned out, Netscape was never able to follow through on the
early promise of a browser OS. Not only was Java too clunky,
insecure and ill-suited to the purpose, but Netscape never
really took advantage of it, and the browser wars that Microsoft
triggered with the release of Internet Explorer soon turned in
the software giant’s favor, as Netscape became bloated and

Now, Google is offering its own scripting language known as
Native Client, which the company no doubt hopes will be seen by
developers as a friendlier version of ActiveX. What it will
allow browsers to do is run code in the language understood by a
user’s PC, rather than having to translate everything on
the fly. In a nutshell, that means browser-based software and
services will run faster and be able to offer more functionality
than they can now. Browser-based services that could replicate
all of the features of a desktop application would become a

As several observers have noted, the combination of
Google’s new Chrome browser, its Gears software —
which allows web apps to store data for offline use and
synchronize it later — and the Native Client language
makes for something that is awfully close to being a web OS.
Applications and services could run on any computer, storing
data whenever an Internet connection wasn’t available and
effectively erasing the boundaries between desktop and web. And
all it requires, of course, is that everyone adopt and adhere to
Google’s new language and standard (both Microsoft and
Adobe have been trying something similar with Silverlight and

Is the world ready for a Google-ized version of ActiveX? Perhaps
not. But if the company does manage to get enough support for
Native Client, the web OS could become a reality — and
the knife that Google is already holding to Microsoft’s
neck with its web apps could cut a little deeper.

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