Re-thinking the Operating System

google-chrome-logoGoogle modestly announced its plans for the Chrome OS on Tuesday night (7/7/09). This sent a tsunami of news headlines over the world announcing how Google is taking on Microsoft, dropping an atomic bomb and so on. I agree that this is newsworthy as this is part of the battle for the desktop. However, this is not surprising and while this is significant it might for other reasons than the obvious. The reason is simple. The OS as we know it is not that important anymore.

The big trend here is how operating systems are changing. Operating systems as we know them have become like a commodity. If we look at the big three: Windows, Linux and MacOS they are basically the same. The do their job well. Think about memory management, multitasking, caching, IO, and so on. These subjects have been taught at universities for decades. I even taught these in an Operating Systems course some twenty years ago.

What really separates them is the GUI on top – the look and feel. Then image that instead of the GUI desktop you have a simple lightweight windowing system and a web browser. What is underneath, the operating system is not that important (nor interesting) as long as the browser can do all the tasks.

And this is the significant part of the Google announcement. The browser is the desktop of the computer and all the application run either in the browser or as a service on the Internet.

Both of these are significant. The war is not on the OS but on the application standard running in the browser and the cloud. As it says in the Google announcement: “for application developers, the web is the platform”. The applications running in the browser can be HTML 5 JavaScript application or RIA via Ajax, Flash, Silverlight or some other RIA application model.

The second piece is the cloud. It’s the services on the Internet that are just as important as the applications that can be downloaded. As more and more services go to the cloud the battle moves to the hosting part and the on-line applications.

For many desktop computers users just having a browser might not meet their requirements. But for many users (could be the same users with one of their other computer) using a simple netbook is enough. Not surprisingly, this is where Google is going to begin with.

The Google announcement demonstrates that there is a shift in how we look at the role of the operating system. We are seeing a move from the current traditional computer model to a more web-oriented computer. The abstractions are moving again. It remains to be seen if Google can succeed in providing a browser-based operating system with the limitations of a browser. But Google is re-thinking the role of the operating system and it’s very likely that other players in the market are also working on these trends.

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