So it was declared in the early days: Web apps will win over native apps. Why let the facts cloud an appealing theory?
Marc Andreessen, the Netscape co-founder, is credited with many bold, visionary claims such as “Everyone Will Have the Web” (ca. 1992), “Web Businesses Will Live in the Cloud” (1999), “Everything Will Be Social” (2004, four years before joining Facebook’s Board), and “Software Will Eat the World” (2009).
But not all of Andreessen’s predictions are as ringing and relevant. His 1995 proclamation that “The Browser Will Be the Operating System” still reverberates around the Web, despite the elusiveness of the concept.
The idea is that we can rid our computing devices of their bulky, buggy operating systems by running apps in the Cloud and presenting the results in a Web browser. The heavy lifting is performed by muscular servers while our lightweight devices do nothing more than host simple input/output operations. As a result, our devices will become more agile and reliable, they’ll be less expensive to buy and maintain, we’ll never again have to update their software.
The fly in the ointment is the word connected. As Marc Andreessen himself noted in a 2012 Wired interview [emphasis mine]:
“[I]f you grant me the very big assumption that at some point we will have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity, then in time everything will end up back in the web model.”
So what do we do until we have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity?
We must build off-line capabilities into our devices, local programs that provide the ability to format and edit text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in the absence of a connection to the big App Engines in the Cloud. Easy enough, all you have to do is provide a storage mechanism (a.k.a. a file system), local copies of your Cloud apps, a runtime environment that can host the apps, a local Web server that your Browser can talk to… The inventory of software modules that are needed to run the “Browser OS” in the absence of a connection looks a lot like a conventional operating system… but without a real OS’s expressive power and efficiency.
For expressive power, think of media intensive applications. Photoshop is a good example: It could never work with a browser as the front end, it requires too much bandwidth, the fidelity of the image is too closely tied to the specifics of the display.
With regard to efficiency, consider the constant low-level optimizations required to conserve battery power and provide agile user interaction, none of which can be achieved in a browser plug-in.
Certainly, there are laudable arguments in support of The Browser Is The OS theory. For example: Unified cross-platform development. True, developing an app that will run on a standardized platform decreases development costs, but, let’s think again, do we really want to go for the lowest common denominator? A single standard sounds comfy and economical but it throttles creativity, it discourages the development of apps that take advantage of a device’s specialized hardware.
Similarly, a world without having to update your device because the Cloud always has the latest software is a comforting thought.. but, again, what about when you’re off-line? Also, a growing number of today’s computing devices automatically update themselves.
In any case, the discussion may be moot: The people who pay our salaries — customers — blithely ignore our debates. A recent Flurry Analytics report shows that “Six years into the Mobile Revolution” apps continue to dominate the mobile Web. We spend 86% of our time using apps on our mobile devices and only 14% in our browsers:
…and app use is on the rise, according to the Flurry Analytics forecast for 2014:
So how did Andreessen get it so wrong, why was his prediction so wide of the mark? It ends up he wasn’t wrong… because he never said “The Browser Will Be the Operating System”. Although it has been chiseled into the tech history tablets, the quote is apocryphal.
While doing a little bit of research for this Monday Note, I found a 1995 HotWired article, by Chip Bayers, strangely titled “Why Bill Gates Wants to Be the Next Marc Andreessen”. (Given Microsoft’s subsequent misses and Marc Andreessen’s ascendency, perhaps we ought to look for other Chip Bayer prophecies…) The HotWired piece gives us a clear “asked and answered” Andreessen quote [emphasis mine]:
“Does the Web browser become something like an operating system?
No, it becomes a new type of platform. It doesn’t try to do the things an operating system does. Instead of trying to deal with keyboards, mouses, memory, CPUs, and disk drives, it deals with databases and files that people want to secure – transactions and things like that. We’re going to make it possible for people to plug in anything they want.”
Nearly two decades later, we still see stories that sonorously expound “The Browser Is The OS” theory. Just google the phrase and you’ll be rewarded with 275M results such as “10 reasons the browser is becoming the universal OS” or “The Browser Is The New Operating System”. We also see stories that present Google’s Chrome and Chromebooks as the ultimate verification that the prediction has come true.
The Browser Is The OS is a tech meme, an idea that scratches an itch. The nonquote was repeated, gained momentum, and, ultimately, became “Truth”. We’ll be polite and say that the theory is “asymptotically correct”… while we spend more energy figuring out new ways to curate today’s app stores.