I believe the browser will become the new operating system. I know, I know. That's a horrible generalization. It sounds dangerously similar to Sun's oh-so-successful slogan "The network is the computer".
But I really do believe it. I believe online applications are the future, and the purpose of the browser operating system will be to let you access them -- to patch through your computer’s core functions (video, sound etc.) so that applications can access them in a uniform and consistent way.
You need to actually use an online application to realize why they're so damned useful. It's easy to be dismissive until you do. As a long-time Gmail user, I genuinely find it astonishing that people still use email clients, and store their e-mail on one computer. It’s unimaginable for me not being able to access my email on my desktop and laptop computers, or even my cellphone or Nokia N800 handheld.
I use Google Docs too. This has fewer functions than the version of Write that came with Windows 3.1, but the convenience of being able to seamlessly work on documents across several computers is incredibly compelling. I was deeply sceptical about Google Docs until I actually started using it. Then I was hooked.
Many people are dismissive of online applications. This is perhaps because they take a look at what's currently available and see a lame duck. But such a view is short-sighted. It's like a cart driver looking at steam-powered motor vehicles in 1900 and declaring motoring a lost cause. Based on the evidence available to him, he's entirely right. But he hasn't the foresight to imagine the Volkswagen Beetle, or the Toyota Corolla, or the Ferrari Testarossa.
Even the phrase “online application” is old-fashioned and a significant misnomer. What we’re really talking about is online functionality. This might not come in an “application”-like framework or structure, such as we’re used to. This is because it doesn’t have to. The concept of an “application” was a necessary one for the past thirty years when we all used discrete desktop PCs.
Above all, remember that college kids love online applications. They already live their lives online. And the today's college kids will be tomorrow’s rulers of the world. The world is changing whether you like it or not.
FWIW, I understand Google Docs is already wildly popular amongst college kids.
There are many issues yet to be overcome, however, before online applications will be accepted as a universal panacea. Data security remains a core issue, for example. And if we’re to do some tasks online, such as video editing, we’re going to need much faster Internet connections, and no bandwidth caps.
But I don’t see either of these barriers as being insurmountable. I can think of solutions. I'm sure you can.
The biggest barrier facing the acceptance of online applications is our old-fashioned mindset: we still think in terms of operating systems, and individual applications on our computers. The issue isn’t really a technical one. It’s a philosophical one.
However, I think the solution is already here in the form of BIOS-based operating systems. A recent example is HyperSpace from Phoenix Technologies. This is an entire slimmed-down operating system that is stored on what we used to call the BIOS chip. Because flash storage is used, booting is almost instant, and the operating system provides the basic functionality we're all used to, such as a browser, email client, and more.
To be honest, there’s nothing technologically astonishing about a BIOS operating system. It’s just an OS in flash memory.
The key breakthrough is ideological: BIOS-based operating systems demote the operating system to just another function of the hardware. It breaks the old mindset of the operating system being a distinct platform, or an end in itself. The operating system becomes part of the overall computing appliance.
This allows the spotlight to focus on online applications. With the operating system now taking a back seat, online applications can begin to shine.
Open source works
Did I mention that HyperSpace is based on Linux? Only open source allows hardware companies the freedom to innovate in this way without having to pay huge licensing fees, or having to develop from scratch. Open source is far more flexible than rigid old Windows, which would require major adaptation.
The other beautiful thing about Linux in this situation is that it doesn’t have an ego. There’s no need for branding. Once again, this allows the BIOS operating system to be less visible and intrusive. At the present time, few people other than enthusiasts know the company that authored their BIOS software. In future, few people will know the company that authored their operating system. All they will know about are their online applications, because that's all they will care about.
You may disagree with me. If you do, I suspect you'll be one of the people who -- in this future of online apps -- doggedly clings to a traditional PC setup and runs a local operating system. This is fine. I suspect there will be many who don’t want to abandon the old way of working, and I may well be amongst you.
But for the rest of the world, to whom computers are merely a tool to get a job done, I really can see a future of BIOS-based low-maintenance minimally-intrusive operating systems that are primarily a launching point for online activities.
But the best news is that the future belongs to open source. Put simply, there’s no room for Microsoft in this brave new world. Their business model of providing software for individual PCs has reached a natural conclusion. As with the present online world, the future world of online applications simply has no need or desire for proprietary technologies.
Keir Thomas is the author of several books on Ubuntu, including the free-of-charge Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.