The Browser Is The New Operating System

from the local-storage dept

A couple of weeks ago TechCrunch had a good write-up of the move toward open local storage APIs in web browsers. As websites have come to look more and more like applications rather than static pages, they’ve begun to bump up against the limits of what today’s web browsers can do. Developers have responded by using a variety of proprietary plug-ins and workarounds to expand the browser’s functionality. One example of this is local storage. There aren’t a lot of good options for applications that want to store significant amounts of data client-side in a way that will continue to be available if the Internet connection goes away. Google has Google Gears, while Adobe has Flash. Each offers local storage, but neither is compatible with the other, nor are their APIs likely to be adopted by other browser vendors in the future.

Luckily, as part of the HTML 5 effort, it looks like the major browser vendors are moving toward a set of open APIs for local storage that will (theoretically, at least) enable developers to write an application targeting this functionality and have it work on any modern browser. It appears that the latest versions of Firefox largely already support the API, and support has been added to recent builds of WebKit, the foundation of Apple’s Safari browser. The big laggard is Internet Explorer, which has some but not all of the functionality. But even IE users have the option of installing Google Gears, which has promised to add HTML 5-compliant local storage APIs. The broad support of these APIs by other browsers, along with the fear of giving the edge to its arch-rival Google, will put a lot of pressure on Microsoft to jump on the bandwagon.

What’s really interesting about this is that browsers are starting to resemble operating systems in their own right. One of the most fundamental features of operating systems is to provide a consistent interface for data storage. OS developers call it a file system, rather than “local storage,” but the concept is the same. And as websites come to increasingly resemble full-blown operating systems, I think browser vendors are increasingly going to have to solve the same kinds of problems that operating system vendors do.

For example, it has become increasingly common for my browser to slow to a crawl because one poorly-written, JavaScript-heavy website is sucking up all the CPU. Just as operating systems have preemptive multitasking to prevent one application from bringing the whole system to a crawl, browsers should have mechanisms to prevent one misbehaving website from bringing my browser grinding to a halt. Safari has an extremely primitive version of this – I’ll sometimes get a dialog box informing me that a particular website’s Javascript is creating problems and asking if I want to stop it – but there’s a lot of room for improvement. The browser should automatically limit the amount of CPU one website can use when others are waiting. And I should be able to call up a “task manager” that shows me all the websites I’ve got open and gives their CPU and memory usage. When websites begin to resemble full-fledged applications, browsers are going to start behaving like full-fledged operating systems.

In a sense, this is the belated fulfillment of Netscape’s “middleware” strategy to make the web browser the new operating system. As detailed in the Microsoft antitrust saga, Netscape’s hope (and Microsoft’s fear) was that the browser would supplant the operating system as the default platform for user applications. That’s now starting to happen, although it didn’t happen fast enough to save Netscape.

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Comments on “The Browser Is The New Operating System”

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Nick Burns says:

Re: It won't be long...

The first web OS was introduced in 2006, and it is called YouOS. I signed up for it and tried it out when I first read about it nearly two years ago. The programmers (I believe the project started at MIT) have gone on to start a company in Silicone Valley, and established Go try it out. It’s free. Unfortunately, the storage is all remote, not local; however, I’m sure that HTML5 will give them the ability to offer options for local storage.

Ed says:

Re: Re:

Lol, funny reading this. Google Chrome does have a task-manager now 🙂

There are some things I like about the idea web-based applications, and there are some things I do not like.

Web applications make deployment a little easier. If standards are followed, then the application “should” work the same on all platforms (write once, deploy anywhere). But as anybody who has done web development, it doesn’t always work that way (F****** IE).

It’s also a real pain to code web applications due to all the things that must interact with each other. It’s not uncommon for a single web-application to be coded in PHP, SQL, JavaScript, Java, HTML, CSS, and XML. IMO it’s easier to build desktop applications with layers that abstract the platform-specific things.

However, making the server do much of the work would allow for clients to be cheap, low-power systems. Also, it’s nice to be able to open up a browser on any system, and have access to the same data.

I think the biggest reason companies are trying to really push web applications is because they can be much more profitable. There’s no problem with piracy, and instead of the customer paying once, they have to pay a subscription fee.

Privacy and security is another big concern I have with these trends. A lot of these companies share and sell information to other companies and government agencies. It’s already creepy to know that a lot of my personal information is already in databases accessible to anyone willing to pay.

bob says:

The Browser Is The New Operating System? um, no.

I remember when the browser was the new operating system back in 1997. IE 4.0 introduced the F-11 key that caused the browser to take over the desktop. Netscape had its equivalent but I forget what it was. They also gave us “active desktop” that would let you make a web page your desktop. Citrix Net-PCs were the next big thing. Thin client was the wave of the future. Nobody will have to pay for expensive and bulky PC hardware ever again!

It would seem that everything old is new again.

People that call the browser the OS don’t really know what an OS does. That’s like saying “the car is the road” if it has treads instead of wheels.

Thrip says:

Nothing is the new anything

I’m so tired of hearing this crap. An OS is an OS. A browser is a browser. To the extent that they do the same thing, you are just creating inefficiency.

It’s very clear at this point that we need a cross-platform thick client. Maybe it will be AIR. Maybe Sun will finally figure out how to stop making Java so annoying to end users. But this attempt to force browsers into that role is asinine. First, because they’re lousy at it: my computer can launch a pure-Java mail app with a much more complete and responsive interface than gmail in a fraction of the time it takes the gmail app to load. And the Java app is infinitely easier to write, test, and maintain.

When HTML 5 is the standard and every page on the web is riddled with JavaScript UI frameworks, embedded video, and inline SQL queries against local storage — browsers still won’t offer anything we don’t already have with Java and Flash, and there will be nothing at all to fill the place browsers used to occupy: the thin client.

some old guy says:

Re: Nothing is the new anything

my computer can launch a pure-Java mail app with a much more complete and responsive interface than gmail in a fraction of the time it takes the gmail app to load. And the Java app is infinitely easier to write, test, and maintain

HAHA! ya, right. I wonder what it’s like living in your dreamworld! dear god, that must be a wild and crazy world!

Robert Levy (user link) says:

Re: Nothing is the new anything

Maybe Sun will finally figure out how to stop making Java so annoying to end users.

They would have to make it less annoying to programmers as well because people have been spoiled by great dynamic languages (such as Python, Ruby and now the resurgence of Common Lisp (which was the inspiration for Ruby, but is faster than C++ (and Java, Ruby, and Python))).

chris (profile) says:

Re: Nothing is the new anything

you guys all sound like the old timers that freaked out when windows and dos stopped being separate entities.

the gui is not the OS, but today the difference between them is largely academic. you need an OS to run the UI, and for most people without a computer science degree the UI is what they interact with, so to 90% of the computer using population, the UI is the OS.

lets take this to the next logical step. the browser is not the UI, which is not the OS, but since the browser is what most people interact with, the browser will soon be synonymous with the OS.

this situation isn’t helped by certain browsers being used primarily on and/or popularized by a specific OS: konqueror on linux, safari on mac os, internet explorer on windows. sure, you can use IE and safari on both windows and mac OS and mozilla pretty much anything, but they are most popular on their native platforms.

so, while anyone with an ounce of technical ability can tell you that the browser is not the OS, as the web matures into the target platform for most applications, the difference between them will also become largely academic.

jon says:

“When HTML 5 is the standard and every page on the web is riddled with JavaScript UI frameworks, embedded video, and inline SQL queries against local storage — browsers still won’t offer anything we don’t already have with Java and Flash, and there will be nothing at all to fill the place browsers used to occupy: the thin client.”

nobody’s making you use javascript/video/etc, plain html will still work

Thrip says:


nobody’s making you use javascript/video/etc, plain html will still work

Yes someone is: web developers. Up until a couple of years ago I often used a lean browser program for a lot of my browsing. Now I have to use a slow, memory-hogging behemoth because a huge proportion of web sites do require javascript and hardcore css support, even if all I want from them is text.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Just to add to the no vote ...

… don’t forget that all these Web apps are being written in interpreted JavaScript, not compiled machine code. So they’re taking our modern multi-gigahertz machines and reducing them to the equivalent speed of something from a decade and a half ago.

So what next? Will someone come up with the bright idea of compiling the code? That would mean requiring a standardized hardware architecture. And so we reinvent yet another stage of the repeating cycle…

Jake says:

Browsers with improved multi-tasking ability would be nice, certainly, but it wouldn’t exactly revolutionise computing. If it’s all running off the company intranet then one still might as well have a standalone application, which could be had for a similar price and would offer similar performance in most cases. The model makes a certain amount of sense for working off-site, but communicating with off-site databases will probably stay the exception rather than the rule, especially where business-critical data is concerned; it puts too many points of failure beyond the control of the data’s owners.

Brennan Cheung says:

I sincerely hope this does not come to pass. It is true their is a strong need for a single desktop platform to target to build rich apps for but the browser metaphor is severely flawed. A combination of Java and AIR (like ideas) make the most sense to me. Java has a huge API and AIR and Adobe is taking steps for companies to be able to secure their code and their content.

Let’s examine this from a few perspectives.


They don’t really care. They just want it to work and not be a hassle. It has to be simple enough that they can install and use it as well. Also, they must be able to trust it (it’s not going to do anything invasive to their machines). Java has done well with this with it’s sandbox and Flash Player is nice when it asks the user can the app use the disk, microphone, etc.


They want something that is preferably open, based on standards, and leverages what they already know. It should have rich functionality with a large API and it should be easy to develop with. Currently having to use half a dozen languages (HTML, CSS, Javascript, PHP, SQL, +frameworks) just to write a web app is ridiculous. The evolution of current web apps has been one hack added on top of another. The result is a development platform no longer suited for what it is used. It’s time to take a step back and redesign the whole thing.


Let’s face it, companies need to agree on the platform as well or it will not take off. Yes there’s Linux and that’s fine if you only want fringe use, but if you want wide acceptance you need to address the needs and concerns of companies. The platform should allow you to protect your code and your content. Any code client-side in the browser is currently unprotected. Also, media should be able to be protected and several business models from protected streaming to save to disk for limited time (trial / rental) should also work. Additionally, companies will not jump on board unless the customers are already there.

The biggest challenge I think is combining the needs. If someone does, that platform will dominate. Open source would be nice but the community rarely addresses the needs of companies when it comes to DRM issues. There’s also the concern that if it is open that people can remove the DRM aspects and get access to the code and content.

The problem with any one company is that it’s hard to trust them and every company out there is going to try to do the same thing (as evidenced now) and create fragmentation (bad for developers and bad for users). Competition is good to foster growth and quality, but sucks if it creates fragmentation.

So far I like Adobe AIR the best. Especially with the functionality of Flash Player 10. The thing I don’t like about them is that they are slow to innovate (e.g., Why must I use ECMAScript when you are just running bytecodes? Let me use whatever languages I want like .NET does.) and they also have sole-control over the platform so if I want a new feature they have to not only approve it but invest the resources to create a feature maybe only a few people want. In other words, not going to happen.

Let me know what you guys think. I’m especially interested in any ideas that would satisfy the needs of all 3 parties mentioned above.

Angry Dude says:

Where is Mike?

Timothy writes: Just as operating systems have preemptive multitasking to prevent one application from bringing the whole system to a crawl, browsers should have mechanisms to prevent one misbehaving website from bringing my browser grinding to a halt. […] The browser should automatically limit the amount of CPU one website can use when others are waiting.

If Mike were writing this blurb, at this point he’d assert how the patent system is inhibiting innovation by preventing all the programmers from actually implementing these apps that you’ve ideated.

Don says:


People are blind. Why would you want an os on the web. This has been one of the most asinine ideas I have heard of lately. Humm put all my data on the net so I can’t lock it down as I see fit. Give up more privacy for what… to run an os on top of an os. I see no worth in this idea only drawbacks. Just from the data stand point its a bad idea. Not to mention that if you allow low level access you run the risk of a bricked computer. As far as I am concerned I would not touch it with my worst enemies computer. I will always go for security over convenience. Enough said.

SLR says:

OS on the Web...

People keep saying that there is no reason to ever do this other than for convience. Well, I’d beg to differ… If you look at this from the flips side, you’d see how this would much more beneficial to the businesses/governments than to consumers. Imagine having to rent programs like MS Word from Microsoft for a monthly fee… or having to pay a to have your data stored on some central server.

When it comes to radical ideas like this, if you want to find the real intentions behind it, you have to follow the money. In this case, it’s pointing a huge finger at business & government control hiding behind the the “convience theme” and is pointing a huge middle finger at the consumers…

iammisc says:

I think we all need a vocab lesson...

Recently, there has been quite a lot of hype about a Web OS and the browser performing the function of operating systems. But put simply, that’s never going to happen. As anyone who has seriously coded an operating system(which is quite a slim minority) will know, an operating system has to do so much more than simply deal with “local storage.” First of all the browser has the underlying kernel to deal with file systems. All it has to do for a “filesystem” is to simply call fopen(). An operating system in contrast would actually have to call a hard disk driver which has to deal with the eccentricities of hard disk drives and then read everything into a buffer and then pass that to the filesystem driver where it will be parsed. Then that file information is passed to the VFS and then finally to the browser. The complexity of what a true operating system does simply dwarfs the complexity of writing a browser. Firefox, IE, Safari, Opera, and every other major browser has a true operating system to provide a consistent API on a plethora of hardware. It is true that the web is becoming more like an application and it is also acceptable to say that soon, the web will be able to serve most day-to-day applications. However, no matter how many applications it serves, the Web will never be an operating system and without the support of true operating systems, it would cease to exist in the first place.

So let’s get this straight: the web is not an operating system!

Pyperdown says:

The "duh" heard round the world.

Yes virginia, the browser has been the new OS for about 10 years now. About time somebody woke up to that. Client OS’s are just the gateway to the “real” os. apologies to “bill” and “steve”. cash in your options. You’re done. We” just have to see how long you can keep real developers from realizing this and leaving your “yesterday’s” technology in the dustbin next to visicalc and lotus. It’ll take a few few years, but you will in time discover that you were (very) useful idiots.

Barry says:

Shut up and go get a CS degree

Hey why don’t you go write about the latest innovations in gene therapies, or Indonesian trade policy? I suspect you know about just as much about those topics as you do about operating systems and browser architectures.

Hey, you have used a light socket. What are your thoughts on current energy crisis? You have stole money from your mommies purse. How would you fix our crowded prison system?

Why don’t bloggers feel compelled to know anything about what they are writing? Do they not feel any shame? Do they not have any regard for their readers time?

Jeffry Houser (profile) says:

Flash Local Storage

Just wanted to point out that the mechanism for local storage in the Flash Player is a Shared Object. Shared Objects are limited to 100K. It’s better than the 4K allowed in browser cookies, but no replacement for the off-line storage of an OS.

In my experience this functionality of the Flash Player is rarely used. Most people use a database server for the bulk of data within Flash Player applications; which [as you probably guessed] is not local.

AKUMA (user link) says:

the best comment post ... save time

I have just read the full article and all 30(+) posts and the most insightful and “on-point” comment post is #25 by iammisc.

The new value of a website (or single page) is if that site or page is not static or dynamic but an actual web app. Reading from the article – my guess is that local storage right now is very hard to accomplish but OS it is not. The author of the article just needs to be a bit more careful when it comes to the use of specific terms.

Jon says:

The great strength of web apps, which is what has caused so many developers and companies to embrace them, is that they solve the problem of deployment. Within corporate intranets, deploying new versions of desktop applications is a time-consuming process and carries inevitable risks of applications interfering or being otherwise incompatible with each other. If you just get all staff to bookmark a web app location, then you can update at your leisure and everybody has to use the new system.

Outside the corporate world, persuading users to upgrade to the latest version of your desktop software is always a pain. You tend to deliver lots of changes wrapped up in a single release, which is inherently dangerous, and you usually end up having to maintain at least a couple of historical versions until everybody has switched over. With web apps, problem solved. You can incrementally add features and roll them out to some or all users immediately. You can get feedback and roll out further fixes and changes straight away.

Of course, even desktop apps nowadays have updaters to check for newer versions, but they are still generally expected to get the user’s permission before installing an update. With web apps, there’s no need because the code resides on your servers.

PMDubuc (user link) says:

Re: Do Web apps really solve the deployment problem?

(A response to Jon, #34)

Not when where talking about the browser being the new OS. This means putting more code on the client side. They’re talking about using LOCAL storage, preemptive multitasking of the locally running code. Whose CPU do you think is getting hogged by the local application? You can’t do everything on the server if you expect the user to make significant use of your app when the Internet connection is unavailable or unreliable. All this will do is move the deployment problem and possibly make it worse. Instead of having to install a new desktop app, they will have to deploy updates to plugins, browsers, Java, and anything else running on the client machine that the web app depends upon.

Yes self-updating desktop apps require user permission to install an update. That is for security reasons, not technical ones. So, are web apps inherently more secure when the browser is the OS?

Anonymous Coward says:

Alright, nitpicks… Yes, the browser will not fully replace the OS. Yes, people tend to abuse terms to make a point. Listen to the message, not the words.

That said, I can imagine some twisted version of linux that has an address bar in the taskbar that lets you enter either a website or an application, and makes an effort to minimize the difference between webapps and regular apps. Bookmarks become regular shortcuts. Browsing proper is still needed, and blocking websites would have to become a core function, but I still find it an interesting concept.

Montasser Abdellatif (user link) says: is the best Web OS / Web OS is the future operating systems

I totally agree with the article. Think for a while, Emails on the web, Photos and documents on the web, applications on the Web, so it is time to have the whole computer on the web. I’m Using ( since more than one year. Actually, they are providing each human with a FREE virtual computer. Giving 5GB file storage with 3GB email account. There, you will find some cool applications for viewing pictures, playing music, creat and edit documents / spreadsheets, watching stream vedios and even playing games!!! The Idea is that you have your own virtual computer in the cloud where you can access it through any browser with any physical device (Laptop, PC, Phone browser,…) in the world.
Eventhough there are very few simillar competitors to but i think they are very reliable and secure since they are hosting everything at

I think this is the future and the revolution of the Operating system

Antiedman says:

security is the problem

That might just be the day you can kiss security good bye. Just as good cloud computing is leaving are info in someone else’s hands so will using a browser OS turn are computer over.

Granted as a concept of computer development it could lead to the creation of many non-intrusive developments. however till then I think I will keep my OS and just install a Internet browsing software program.

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