Why isn't the OS a browser?

10 Sep 2009 - 6:16pm
5 years ago
20 replies
733 reads
kimbieler
2007

I hope this isn't a dumb question, but I've been thinking about how
much duplication there is between the OS and the browser -- each has
its own navigation, its own file structure, its own applications and
plug-ins, and all that real-estate-hogging chrome!

Sure, some businesses are never going to be comfortable with cloud
computing, but the rest of us don't really care whether an
application is launching from a remote server or a local hard drive.
Why should I have to remember whether a file is in Google docs, or
saved in Delicious, or nested somewhere on my hard drive?

I assume there will be convergence between the OS and the browser at
some point -- or are there good reasons to keep them distinct?

Comments

10 Sep 2009 - 7:02pm
Joshua Muskovitz
2008

For the same reason your car isn't a daiquiri.

An operating system is the framework in which application processes
are executed in a controlled fashion.

Browsers are visual applications, which take data and render it in an
interactive fashion.

You can build devices without operatings systems -- they simply do
one thing, and one thing only. Your TV remote is a good example.

You can build a device with a screen and a HID where the one thing it
does is "run a browser". You can add features to a browser to make
it more like an OS. If you take this to its logical conclusion, you
might call that a browser that is also an OS. But in reality, there
will be two very distinct components which make it up, the OS part
and the browser part. They are simply two distinct things, like your
car's engine and its driver's seat.

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10 Sep 2009 - 9:37pm
Jack L. Moffett
2005

On Sep 10, 2009, at 1:16 PM, Kim Bieler wrote:

> Why should I have to remember whether a file is in Google docs, or
> saved in Delicious, or nested somewhere on my hard drive?

Well, for a rather simplistic and somewhat smug answer (my apologies),
you'll be quite disappointed to find out that the file is in Google
docs when you open your laptop without a network connection. I'd
prefer to know exactly where my file is.

Best,
Jack

Jack L. Moffett
Senior Interaction Designer
inmedius
412.459.0310 x219
http://www.inmedius.com

It's not about the world of design;
it's about the design of the world.

- Bruce Mau

10 Sep 2009 - 10:24pm
Nasir Barday
2006

>> You'll be quite disappointed to find out that the file is in Google docs
when you open y
>> our laptop without a network connection. I'd prefer to know exactly where
my file is.
A design problem, the solution to which already comes via Google Gears
(offline sync'd Docs and GMail!)

The distinction between OS and Browser is becoming unimportant. The main
difference is in performance; if you need to do processor-intensive stuff
(design/development, making video, laying down tracks for your latest album,
tricky features in productivity apps), a native-running app is the ticket.
But you could probably lock most people within a full-screened browser and
they'd still be covered.

With strange animals like "SplashTop," a minimal OS for netbooks that runs
Skype, Mozilla, and IM; Google's Gears and pending Chrome OS; and especially
with Web 2.0's ability to save and use local data, as well as run without an
Internet connection, what's the difference to the end-user? One runs inside
the other, but what if the Browser ran alone? That's more of the question
you're asking, right Kim?

- Nasir

10 Sep 2009 - 11:20pm
Andrei Herasimchuk
2004

On Sep 10, 2009, at 9:24 PM, Nasir Barday wrote:

> The distinction between OS and Browser is becoming unimportant.

Except for the minor fact that without an OS you can't actually launch
a browser.

> The main difference is in performance;

The main difference is that the OS actually runs the hardware, things
like your keyboard, mouse inputs, RAM usage, drawing to the computer
screen, etc. If the browser ran the hardware, then the browser would
be an OS.

> if you need to do processor-intensive stuff
> (design/development, making video, laying down tracks for your
> latest album,
> tricky features in productivity apps), a native-running app is the
> ticket.

You've made a leap here. (One which is reasonable, fwiw.) You've gone
from talking about OS versus Browser App to talking about the
difference between Browser App versus Native App.

> With strange animals like "SplashTop," a minimal OS for netbooks
> that runs
> Skype, Mozilla, and IM; Google's Gears and pending Chrome OS; and
> especially
> with Web 2.0's ability to save and use local data, as well as run
> without an
> Internet connection, what's the difference to the end-user? One runs
> inside
> the other, but what if the Browser ran alone? That's more of the
> question
> you're asking, right Kim?

I'd love to know how it's possible for a browser application to even
launch without an OS.

-Andrei

10 Sep 2009 - 7:40pm
alexislloyd
2009

On Thu, Sep 10, 2009 at 2:02 PM, Joshua Muskovitz <joshm at taconic.net> wrote:

> For the same reason your car isn't a daiquiri.
>

I don't think this is a valid analogy. I think Kim's original questions
points to the current blurring of lines that's happening between the
previous dichotomy of apps vs. browser environments. You have more and more
applications that do live in the browser or in the cloud, as well as hybrid
environments like Adobe AIR, which are browser-based apps ported to the
desktop. And we've also got HTML 5 on the horizon, which will allow us to do
things in the browser (such as local data storage) that have previously only
been possible in desktop environments. Finally, you've also got mobile
application environments, which seem to be largely shifting over to a
standardized WebKit browser platform. All of these changes lead to questions
like, "why isn't the OS a browser?" and I think, as interaction designers,
we need to think about what the browser really is to a user. Up until now,
it has denoted "the web", which was a separate place from everything else.
But as everything is increasingly part of the web, does it make any sense to
have a conceptually separated environment for it?

Alexis

11 Sep 2009 - 1:40am
James Page
2008

If you go back to 1987 Byte Magazine ran a cover about the Browser been the
future OS.

Netscape and Sun both pushed this view that the OS was dead. Sun was
pushing Java applets.

Microsoft then launched a browser. Years of Anti Trust battle happened.

Back in 1987 there was two challenges. Most people where on dial up, and
there was no Ajax.

I worked back then on a project to port an application from an old mainframe
to the web. The issues where speed, and error checking. The user experience
was not great.

The challenge now with the Browser becoming the OS is that OS's are so
cheap. To build a browser you need a basic OS. When you have a basic OS why
not let 3rd party apps run on it?

James
blog.feralabs.com

2009/9/11 Andrei Herasimchuk <aherasimchuk at involutionstudios.com>

> On Sep 10, 2009, at 9:24 PM, Nasir Barday wrote:
>
> The distinction between OS and Browser is becoming unimportant.
>>
>
> Except for the minor fact that without an OS you can't actually launch a
> browser.
>
> The main difference is in performance;
>>
>
> The main difference is that the OS actually runs the hardware, things like
> your keyboard, mouse inputs, RAM usage, drawing to the computer screen, etc.
> If the browser ran the hardware, then the browser would be an OS.
>
> if you need to do processor-intensive stuff
>> (design/development, making video, laying down tracks for your latest
>> album,
>> tricky features in productivity apps), a native-running app is the ticket.
>>
>
> You've made a leap here. (One which is reasonable, fwiw.) You've gone from
> talking about OS versus Browser App to talking about the difference between
> Browser App versus Native App.
>
> With strange animals like "SplashTop," a minimal OS for netbooks that runs
>> Skype, Mozilla, and IM; Google's Gears and pending Chrome OS; and
>> especially
>> with Web 2.0's ability to save and use local data, as well as run without
>> an
>> Internet connection, what's the difference to the end-user? One runs
>> inside
>> the other, but what if the Browser ran alone? That's more of the question
>> you're asking, right Kim?
>>
>
> I'd love to know how it's possible for a browser application to even launch
> without an OS.
>
> -Andrei
>
>
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11 Sep 2009 - 8:06am
ambroselittle
2008

On Thu, Sep 10, 2009 at 1:16 PM, Kim Bieler <kimbieler at gmail.com> wrote:

> I hope this isn't a dumb question, but I've been thinking about how
> much duplication there is between the OS and the browser -- each has
> its own navigation, its own file structure, its own applications and
> plug-ins, and all that real-estate-hogging chrome!
>
----

Andrei made most of the important technical distinctions--you still need an
OS to operate the hardware that the browser runs on.

It's not terribly important, but it might be helpful to keep in mind that
what I think most people think of as OS sort of includes three main things:
*execution environment* for *applications* and their *data*. And actually,
I'd guess most don't even think about the execution environment per se
beyond "the thing that I use to access my apps/data."

For a personal computer, these three live on the local hardware more or less
permanently. For what folks think of as "browser," only the execution
environment is permanently on the local hardware (on top of the OS); the
applications and data live in the cloud. They might cache apps/data locally
temporarily, but it's not as permanent as local apps.

Here's another twist. I would suggest that Flash and Silverlight are
actually "browsers" themselves. That they plug in to existing browsers is
more of a delivery mechanism than anything else. They provide their own,
richer and more reliable execution environment, and Silverlight also has
it's own, richer local app and data storage/cache (don't know the details of
Flash myself). AIR and Silverlight "out of browser" highlight this fact
even more.

So it's not so much "browser" per se that matters as having a lightweight
execution environment that can provide you access to rich, Web-based apps.
Netbooks and other devices basically eschew local app and data storage and
constrain the execution environment to browser-based stuff.

"Browsers" also provide another important aspect--security. They typically
provide what we call a "sandbox" for these Web-based apps to play in,
keeping them from mucking up your local device/OS (at least that's the
idea). The practical implications of this are that it is not just
performance that means you sometimes need to go local but also for access to
other OS services (usually connections to devices like cameras, scanners,
printers, etc.) that are not available in the sandbox.

Anyways, I'm sure that's more than you wanted to know. I'll shut up now.

-a

11 Sep 2009 - 9:06am
Nasir Barday
2006

Okay, I hope it's clear that no one is talking about a Browser BEING an
Operating System. Yes, an OS handles all kinds of under-the-hood things that
the Browser never even thought of. Which is why a Browser runs on top of an
OS-- so it doesn't have to think about pesky things like "device drivers"
and "interrupt handling." So on the technical side, I don't think it's going
to be useful to talk about how a browser IS an OS.

Andrei wrote:

> You've gone from talking about OS versus Browser App to talking about the
> difference between Browser App versus Native App.
>

But we can talk about what it might mean if there was an OS whose sole
function was to run a browser, a la Chrome OS. Kim, tell me if I'm off here,
but I think with your post you wanted to say that Browser apps and Native
apps are becoming one in the same:

Once you've got a web-only terminal with a well-equipped browser, most
people have everything they would need to do with a computer. For anything
that's missing, we have umpteen different platforms to fill them out with.
Eventually, petty things like "who runs what OS" will become even more
petty.

- Nasir

11 Sep 2009 - 9:08am
Nasir Barday
2006

Ambrose wrote:

> They might cache apps/data locally temporarily, but it's not as permanent
> as local apps.
>

Google Gears took this distinction away from local apps long ago, no?

- N

11 Sep 2009 - 10:08am
ambroselittle
2008

On Fri, Sep 11, 2009 at 11:08 AM, Nasir Barday
<nbarday+ixda at gmail.com<nbarday%2Bixda at gmail.com>
> wrote:

> Ambrose wrote:
>
>> They might cache apps/data locally temporarily, but it's not as permanent
>> as local apps.
>>
>
> Google Gears took this distinction away from local apps long ago, no?
>
---

Depends on how you look at it; it's definitely not black and white. There
were solutions before Gears that worked around the limitations of browsers
in these areas, and there are some since. Gears is a browser extension. You
might note I mentioned SL has richer local data storage, too, but SL also
has its own execution and rendering environment, so I say it qualifies more
as a "browser" in the sense of an OS replacement (from a user perspective).

When I think of OS apps and data, I think of the apps (as installed into
their respective local app dirs) and, more often than not, the files that
the apps consume/produce, which are often known to the user and usually are
the "home"/record of reference for these things. There are exceptions, of
course, like installed mail clients that are a hybrid that uses permanent
local app storage but can have temporary/cache for data.

But both Gears and SL have more like a cache than a (more or less) permanent
OS file system (FS). Gears, AIUI, is not even really a virtual file system
but just a database (file). SL has a virtual FS (called Isolated
Storage). They both store their stuff (currently anyways) in a hidden place
on the OS FS that is not intended to be known or accessed directly by
people. Both are intended not as the "home" of the data they keep but
rather as a cache to either speed access to application data (and ergo
better app performance) or have a local cache of server data for use when
the server is not available. Or both. But you don't build an app on these
things relying on the local data to be the permanent home.

Basically, the same applies to the application itself, especially for gears,
which doesn't (necessarily) provide full application capabilities. It
really depends on the server to fully function and again, the apps are
cached--their home is in the cloud.

So that's what I mean by saying "not as permanent as local apps." It may
have been more precise to say something like "not as the permanent home of
these, like local apps."

HTH.

-a

11 Sep 2009 - 10:17am
kimbieler
2007

I'd like to get back into this thread, but I'm only able to see the
first response. Not sure if it's me, or the server...

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12 Sep 2009 - 12:49pm
Joshua Muskovitz
2008

I retract my original answer as being off topic. When the question was
first posted, only the title appeared, not the content. My answer was
in response to the post title only.

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12 Sep 2009 - 1:29pm
Dave Malouf
2005

Nasir,

I accept what you are saying (can't comment on Google Chrome OS b/c
it is vaporware at this point).

But looking at a web browser like FF or even Chrome as my sole
interface to my device, I still don't think it works:
1. how do I adjust my wireless settings?
2. volume control
3. set up power settings
4. security settings
5. user management
etc.

The OS has many valuable components. Even the file system is not
really available through a web browser, and I'm not sure I want it
to be. I.e. its not just about content files, but also system file
access.

Yes, I spend about 80% of my time soley in Firefox, but I still need
other things to get by as well. Don't ignore the importance of the
20%.

- dave

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12 Sep 2009 - 3:06pm
Anonymous

Perhaps the question you're really asking here is "Why isn't the
*desktop* a browser?", not "Why isn't the *OS* a browser?"

There certainly have been attempts to build browser-based desktops.
Some of them are discussed here:
http://blogs.zdnet.com/web2explorer/?p=166

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12 Sep 2009 - 3:22pm
kimbieler
2007

Ah, I'm finally able to see all the responses! Thanks to the clever
gnomes who make this discussion list work.

My original question was "why isn't the OS a browser," not, "why
can't my browser be the operating system." I think there's a
difference. Several people pointed out that you will always need the
OS to run keyboards, RAM, and other background functions. And at
least for the foreseeable future, memory-intensive programs are
better off running natively.

But it seems to me there's no reason the whole OS couldn't become a
background application doing those things behind the scenes. Kind of
like the way Windows runs in DOS.

Hardly anyone remembers that DOS used to be the operating
environment. Now it's completely invisible. Kids growing up with
technology in the coming years aren't going to concern themselves
with memory management, screen redraw speed, devices -- probably not
even physical keyboards. And many of the OS controls Dave mentioned
-- power, security, wireless, user management -- are the sort of
thing you worry about once, when you're walking through the setup
wizard, and then never think of again.

So I do think it's valid to ask whether the average user cares about
the distinction between the OS and the browser and -- if not -- what
can we do to make the experience more transparent.

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12 Sep 2009 - 9:15pm
Dave Malouf
2005

What is a browser to you, Kim? What does it mean?
For me a web browser is chrome surrounding a combination of "thin"
technologies. It also includes mechanisms for extensibility and
sometimes that extensibility can even be whole applications.

What is the browser missing that a GUI to an OS requires:
Volume control - up/down mute
Network settings - wifi settings are used everyday on mobile systems.
Access to power off options - suspend, hibernate, off, restart
Selecting a printer (and various settings w/ that)
date/time settings - when I travel I change the timezone
System updates
Local file management
Drive management - every work w/ a USB?
Display settings - attaching projector, or changing resolution

These are all required to be in the GUI. Now, can these all be
encapsulated inside the Browser chrome? SURE!!!! But they are ALL
necessary components that no current browsers do not handle at all
that people need access to on a regular basis.

Here's the gotchya ... How do you switch rendering engines if you
only have 1 browser? Do you really want to lock the user of your
device into one possible browser? Even chromes can have distinctions
worthy of switching between. Some users even make these switches
dependent on tasks.

Here's 1 ... can iTunes be run as a browser-based application? If it
can, is it really a browser any more?

Further, what do I do if I want the chrome of the browser to be gone?
My app to be thick?

Where do sidebars, dashboards, or widgets go w/o a "desktop"?

While I agree that thin & thick are blurring every day, "the
browser" is still distinct from the desktop in too many ways that I
think would be missed if the chrome of the browser totally took over
the the GUI of a device.

-- dave

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12 Sep 2009 - 10:57pm
Anonymous

RE: "Perhaps the question you're really asking here is "Why isn't the
*desktop* a browser?", not "Why isn't the *OS* a browser?""

I think Calum hit the nail on the head. This is how I interpreted the
question. I don't really have an answer, but I think the question begs
some really important thinking about OS design. Got me thinking!

Brandon E. B. Ward
brandonebward at gmail.com
UI • UX • Ix Design
Flex • Flash Development
Portfolio: http://www.uxd.me
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/brandonebward
VisualCV: http://www.visualcv.com/brandonebward

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion,
butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance
accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders,
give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new
problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight
efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

12 Sep 2009 - 3:40pm
Andrei Herasimchuk
2004

On Sep 12, 2009, at 2:22 PM, Kim Bieler wrote:

> My original question was "why isn't the OS a browser," not, "why
> can't my browser be the operating system."

An operating system is a *very* specific thing that handles very
specific tasks at a technical level. If you're trying to ask what
would it take to make a minimal operating system that only needed
enough services to run browser based applications on a keyboard based
mobile device, while using cloud services for storage, and whether
that kind of product would be sufficient for people's computing needs,
then you have to ask it that way as far as I'm concerned.

When you ask, "why isn't the operating system a browser", you are
asking a question that at technical level does not make a lot of sense.

-Andrei

12 Sep 2009 - 3:47pm
Thomas Petersen
2008

The OS is not a browser because the browser has a different purpose
than the OS. It's not that they couldn't be the same, but it
wouldn't make any real difference. The browser still needs some OS
layer (Network connection, TCP-IP protocol understanding, Hardware
integration etc)

The real question IMHO is why isn't the browser metaphor used more
clearly in the OS.

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13 Sep 2009 - 6:08am
Thomas Petersen
2008

The one thing that separate the browsers use of metaphors from the
desktops is the focus on relation between different elements.

If i point my fileexplorer to the "Library" folder which consist of
more than 40.000 ebooks, podcasts etc. I can find any book I want but
they are not naturally related.

If we for the purpose of this discussion simply upload those 40.000
books and podcasts and call them the internet, then the difference is
that on the internet they would be filled with cross-references
between each other.

I read a little bit in one book and it has a link to another book
that more explicitly explain something that my first book don't

That is fundamentally the difference and a browser then utilizes
something called history that we then on top of that use to browse
back and forward through connection of the documents.

So unless you can start to get that relationship going on your
computer it wont make much sense to talk about the OS as a Browser or
Vice-versa.

They are as such the same but the OS even from a purely content point
of view does not have the same interrelationship between the documents
as they would have where the browser point to.

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