It was nearly a decade ago when a then-young Marc Andreessen, the wunderboy founder of Netscape Communications, first talked about the concept of the browser pushing the operating system into the background. With the release of Google's (GOOG) experimental browser Chrome, we have come full circle.
A lot has changed in the past 10 years. For one thing, the cost of hardware and network infrastructure has declined sharply. Such a decline has led to what's known as cloud computing, whereby companies like Amazon.com (AMZN) offer infrastructure on demand. That has, in turn, allowed innovators to roll out their applications without making major outlays up front.
In the meantime, always-on broadband connections at home, work, and on the move have become commonplace. This has served as a catalyst for those who have developed Web services that are now screaming for browsers that allow your data to live on the Web but be accessible offline, a trend I first wrote about in a column for the now defunct Business 2.0 magazine back in March 2006.
Optimizing for On-the-Go
As I noted back then, "Things will get more exciting for entrepreneurs when we all start walking around with new Internet-ready portable devices…these pocket-size monsters with keyboards, luscious displays, and brisk 3G connections will soon replace laptops…all they need are browsers that can access Web-based software as easily as your desktop can."
For Web applications, the bigger and more real opportunity is with an emerging category of Internet-enabled devices optimized for on-the-go computing. They are skimpy on resources, but they all have browsers. And given app developers' focus on designing apps that can be made available to millions simultaneously, the browser has taken a much more prominent role in our digital life compared with the operating system.
Alistair Croll put it best when he wrote: "Browsers have made computers interchangeable; most of us can work on whatever machine we have at hand, be it a PC, Mac or an XO laptop. As a result, the browser is the new desktop. Today's browser competition is less about who renders HTML properly, and more about what the incumbent browser is and how well it accommodates whatever new applications the Internet throws its way."
Built for Net Apps
But in order for Web applications to match the desktop applications they seek to replace, these browsers need to start offering OS-like functionality. While this year has brought some changes in that direction, Google's Chrome browser embodies such an approach as it is specifically built for these Web applications.
"We realized that the Web had evolved from mainly simple text pages to rich, interactive applications and that we needed to completely rethink the browser. What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for Web pages and applications, and that's what we set out to build," Sundar Pichai, vice-president of product management, and Linus Upson, engineering director, wrote on the Google blog.
"A Very Fast Engine"
"No, I would not call Chrome the operating system of Web apps," said Google co-founder Sergey Brin at the Tuesday demo. "I think it is a very fast engine to run Web apps. With Chrome we will be able to bridge the divide; we will be able do more and more online," he said. "You will be able to access your work from an Internet café and get all those benefits."
Microsoft (MSFT), with its IE 8, Mozilla Firefox with its new technology efforts such as Prism and TraceMonkey, and Apple's (APPL) Safari are also moving to make their browsers work better with Web-based services and applications.
No matter how you look at it, we've gone back to the future. And while the browser is not quite the OS yet, its relevance in our digital lives has become paramount.