Dirk Knemeyer

Someday soon, your OS and browser will be the same thing

Originally published on the Involution Studios blog.

This week’s much-ballyhoed launch of RockMelt is again getting the tech intelligentsia in a lather about a potential new browser. What they seem to be ignoring is that the battle has already been won and lost: the best case scenario for RockMelt is, romantically, they become a plucky cult favourite like Flock before running out of steam and sinking into obscurity; pragmatically, they are doing things so well and advanced that they are bought and assimilated by the companies who have already won this space.

But let’s step back for a moment. At the most basic level, what is a browser? It is an application that provides a platform to access what is on the Internet. The idea of “what is on the Internet” has changed dramatically over the past decade. 10 years ago, the vast majority of what the Internet housed was content. Information. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Today, the Internet still houses and provides virtual oceans full of content, but now it is increasingly serving as a primary application platform. “Web apps” have been taking over from their desktop counterparts since the rise of “Web 2.0” some years ago. Now, the harder and arguably more important role of the browser is to serve up applications.

Now, at the most basic level, what is an operating system? It is an application that provides a platform to access applications that are written for it. While certainly integral to a contemporary computing experience its importance has diminished dramatically in proportion to the rise of the Internet. As people began to use the browser as their window to information and, later, applications, the core operating system became more of a second class citizen or, at a minimum, is now sharing its position as the platform for computing with the browser itself.

Another vector to consider in this conversation are alternative or, for the sake of simplification, mobile computing platforms. Each of these have operating systems, and they have browsers. Two distinctly different things. Yet what we’re see happen in the mobile world is apps are being written for the operating system itself, not for the browser. It is the opposite of desktop computing contexts, which are eschewing the far harder-to-develop-for desktop for the light and lean browser. After all, mobile OS’ are light and lean. And given the few available pixels on mobile, who the heck wants to look through another app in order to get to what they really want? The OS is the proper place for apps to live in mobile.

Where is all this heading? Well, the title of this article leaves little ambiguity: the days of different and distinct operating systems and browsers is decidedly terminal. You and I will, in the near future, “see” our apps, files, content and everything else through two different-but-related things: a desktop OS (that inherently “is” a browser) and a mobile OS. Those two things will almost certainly stay separate, because most of the use cases and interesting things being done or even practically possible on mobile devices require relatively little computing power, complexity, and depth of interaction. It can afford to be light, lean and sleek. On the other hand, particularly in a business context, the need will remain to have a more robust computing framework. Oracle and SAP are at least a decade away from running on what is in essence a mobile OS. Those are only two iconic examples but they represent an entire class of professional-grade software, with which people get business done. Adobe, PTC, Solidworks…the list of companies that produce critical software which is nowhere near able to work properly on a mobile OS is significant.

For companies like RockMelt this is terrible news. No longer is a browser simply an application, it is evolving to be the entire foundation of one’s computing experience. To their credit Google saw this well before anyone else and have been dutifully developing their attempt at federated OS and browser apps – Android and Chrome – well ahead of the competition. But what this means is that, barring an unexpected hail mary, the winners are already in place: Apple, Google and Microsoft all have browsers and distinct operating systems for both the desktop and mobile contexts. This is where the future of software will be won and lost. Linux/Firefox might put up a fight but certainly lack the user base, resources and overall superpower status necessary to really be a player in this game. And as for the start-ups of the world, well, they’d better just be praying for a buyout. If I were to predict the next legitimate competitor to the Apple-Google-Microsoft triumvirate it would be someone unexpected, a tech behemoth that seems unlikely to now wade into these waters. IBM? EMC? Facebook? Heaven forbid – Oracle?

This is a highly mature and complex space that requires tentacles in desktop and mobile, and the ability to forge relationships with computer makers, mobile manufacturers, carriers, and software makers of every stripe. At least for the next generation of this battle, this necessarily will preclude start-ups. Not to burst anyone’s bubble but, to win on this particular battlefield, only superpowers need apply.

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