Browser Apps, Not Desktop Apps
It's unlikely that popular and widely used desktop software, particularly business-oriented tools such as Microsoft Office, will vanish completely by 2015. But the emergence of Web-based apps, including productivity suites like Google Docs and the new Microsoft Office Web Apps, could hasten a migration from relatively slow-booting desktop operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS to speedy, simpler browser-based systems like Google Chrome OS.
Or so Google hopes.
"We've seen a tremendous acceleration in the last year about the kinds of applications that you can build in the browser," says Google's Upson.
For that cloud-computing vision to come true, however, competing vendors must agree on standards that would enable this browser-based world. Whether that will happen is the big question. Will Apple, which has achieved great success with its App Store--a proprietary (and highly profitable) online marketplace of programs than run exclusively on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch--be agreeable to a vision that works against its walled-garden approach to personal computing? And then there's Microsoft, which is notorious for ignoring browser standards in favor of its own technologies--will Redmond play nice?
We won't know right away, obviously, though recent signs are encouraging. Microsoft, for instance, has said that it is committed to adhering to emerging Web standards such as HTML5, which will allow developers to build dynamic Web apps that work equally well across various browsers, including those on mobile phones and tablets that don't support power-hungry browser plug-ins such as Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, and Microsoft Silverlight.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs, perhaps the highest-profile proponent of HTML5, has been waging a holy war against Flash, claiming that Adobe's widely used browser plug-in is too great a drain on a portable device's performance and battery life. Though Apple's phones, media players, and tablets don't support Flash, handsets running Android 2.2, the latest version of Google's mobile OS, will be able to. (Neither Apple nor Mozilla responded to PCWorld's interview requests for this article. Microsoft declined to be interviewed.)
Early examples of applications that run inside HTML5-compliant browsers provide a peek into the future. Flickr Explorer, for instance, allows users to zoom in and out of their images, as well as to pan through photos, much faster than they can with today's browsers.
Complex 3D games will run inside browsers, too. Browsers will become more gamer-friendly as burgeoning Web standards such as WebGL--which provides a 3D graphics application programming interface (API) in a browser without the use of plug-ins--take hold.
"Click on a link, boom, you're playing a 3D game," says Upson, who contrasts the simplicity of Web-based gaming to a cumbersome PC desktop installation or the need for physical media (e.g. DVDs), as is usually the case with today's gaming consoles. One demo currently on YouTube shows Split Second, an arcade-style racing game, running in an HTML5-compliant browser. The game's performance and 3D graphics are comparable to what you'd see in a console or PC version.
One thing is certain: The browser in 2015 will play an even larger role in our daily lives than it does right now--and that's saying a lot. "Everyone needs to support the Web," says Upson. "The Web has billions of users."
With many more to come.
(Editor's Note: A reference in this story to a nonexistent Opera browser feature has been removed.)