Is the Web the new Operating System?

I recently began attending the University of Guelph and as I spend a fair amount of time on campus, I wanted to buy a computer that I could use to complete my course work in between classes. I started to think about my personal computer usage, what apps I use and I realized, I pretty much only use my web browser.

Google has been championing a product known as the Chromebook, which is a computer that pretty much only runs a web browser.  That makes it a low priced device and if you pair that with the fact that I pretty much only use a web browser at home, it seems like it’s the computer I’ve been looking for.  However, I’m a Computer Science major so aside from the standard word processor, I’d need to have access to web and software development apps to complete my course work.  Since I pretty much only use a web browser at home, I wanted to see how feasible it would be to use a web browser for school too.  Could a web browser replace an operating system?

What’s wrong with the desktop OS?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with desktop operating systems, I mean it’s the base platform that runs all our apps and it’s what powers our computers across the world. With that said though, there are a few problems and concerns that pose a threat to its future.

Firstly, the desktop OS has been around for a long time and while we’ve seen incremental updates, they’ve primarily just been consolidating features that other apps originally supplemented, such as CD & DVD writing or basic video editing software.  Basically, it’s reached maturity, and that has lead to an overall stagnation, both in terms of sales and innovation.

According to Bloomberg, 2013 saw the biggest decline in PC market history.  Bloomberg attributed this decline to uninterested buyers, and the sharp decline in desktop PC app development, with most apps and services moving to the web or smartphones and tablets. Ouch.

World Wide PC Shipments Forecast

It seems that consumers are only buying new PC’s to replace their old ones instead of buying a new PC for an exciting innovative new feature, or to support the latest versions of their apps. My own mother recently replaced her 10+ year old PC for a marginally better one simply because she couldn’t find a reason to buy a new PC.

While this certainly isn’t good news for the desktop OS, it’s far from a sinking ship.  Smartphones and tablets have become more powerful, affordable and ubiquitous offering consumers a variety of devices to choose from, instead of the PC. The PC has simply lost market share to other devices, an inevitably due to the variety of substitutes.

So where does this leave the desktop OS? Well, we may have to look to the Web to find that answer.

What’s so special about the web?

The web or the Internet has long been the backbone of the PC, before the Internet the PC was essentially an electronic typewriter. That’s an exaggeration of course, but while the practical uses of the PC were revolutionary at the time, it was the marriage of the Internet and the PC that really made the PC such an essential device to own.

I remember when we bought our first PC many years ago.  The Internet was already quite prevalent, though still in its infancy, but my parents bought a PC to help my sister complete her homework for school.  However when we got the internet, that changed.

My brother and I used to play computer games before we got the Internet, and while we enjoyed it, we really had no idea what we were missing out on.  When we finally got the Internet and access to the Web, I remember searching Google for the simple query “Games” and going through ten pages of search results just reading and learning all sorts of information, and that was just the beginning.

The Web has long been a service based resource, originally providing you access to information through a service like Google Search and instant communication through e-mail.  The Web has since grown both in users and services, offering a wealth of new services that have we’ve all become quite familiar with, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to name a few.

Why have these services made their home on the Web and not on your desktop OS?  Mashable has the answer, and while their article is focused on the web apps versus mobile apps, all of their points are relevant to this topic.  Designing an app for an OS requires a lot of overhead, such as dealing with issues regarding distribution, and both hardware and platform specific requirements, all of which are not issues for web apps.

The web has an interesting relationship with the OS.  To access the web from within an OS, you need to run an app, a web browser, which serves as a gateway.  The web browser is what presents the web to you, meaning that web developers design their websites or web apps to a standard that web browsers support.  This is important because the web and web apps themselves don’t have direct access to the OS to perform their services, everything that they do must be done within the framework of the web browser.

Does this mean that web apps are limited?  Let’s take a look at a few to find out.

Are web apps comparable to their desktop counterparts?

There are a number of traditional apps that have become staples on the PC, I’d like to show you some web app alternatives to them.

Office Suites: Google Docs, Microsoft Office Web Apps

Office suites have long been one of the primary apps used by both people and businesses by providing an unrivaled suite of productivity apps that allow users to do anything ranging from managing expenses to helping you write your next novel.  Both Google and Microsoft have developed web app based productivity suites that are equivalent to their desktop app counterparts and offer unique web based services such as access to the cloud and collaborative options.

Media Player: YouTube, Xbox Music

While media playback on computers have been surrounded by controversy due to legal issues, being able to use internet based services such as Youtube and Xbox Music to listen to music is a great alternative.  Xbox Music for example allows you to match songs in your personal collection, for free with ad support, and allows you to stream your matched music library from any web browser. The only caveat with Xbox Music is that it requires a desktop app to match your music.

Image Editing: Pixlr

Since the advent of digital photography, image editing software such as the ever popular Adobe Photoshop have become a useful tool for enthusiasts and professionals alike. Pixlr is a cloud based image editing web app that provides a strong set of tools that may not exactly please the professional but can offer a great free tool for enthusiasts or non-professionals who are looking for a strong, free, web based alternative.

Mozilla has been working on an interesting project that hopes to make 3D graphics based content, such as video games, available through your web browser.  It’s a great example of the potential we can see from future web apps.

Can I get away with only using a web browser?

I can complete most of my school work without relying on any OS specific apps, which is great, but I’m still somewhat dependant on an OS.  As a Computer Science Major, I’m required to develop applications that run on a desktop based OS, and while there are web app IDE’s that I can use to build apps, I’m still limited to running those apps in a desktop OS.  It’s unavoidable unfortunately, but thankfully I can still get away with just a web browser to complete school work in between classes.  I’ll just have to work on programming assignments at home or in one of the labs.  It’s worth noting that if I were building web based apps, it would be entirely feasible to just use a web browser.

Regardless, it’s promising to see how much the web has grown and evolved since I did my first Google search.  With Chromebooks on the rise, it’s quite possible that we may be using a Web OS in the future.

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