On [Web Technology] OS

by Thomas Brady

Microsoft tried for years to get people to buy tablets. Now, it seems, they may be on the cusp of success. Apple, obviously, has been enjoying quite the windfall in that space for a couple years now.

Handspring, and a few others, tried for several years to convince us that we didn’t need both a PDA and a mobile phone taking up our pockets, but that there could be this third thing—a smartphone—that could replace them both. People, like myself, who carried the monstrosities that passed as the first smartphones looked pretty ridiculous. Now, I’m not quite sure there is such a thing as a PDA, and smartphones are such the norm that anything else is called a “dumbphone.”

And now we have Firefox OS.

Well, for a few years now folks have been trying to build an operating system built on just a browser. This Firefox OS, formerly “Boot to Gecko” is such a thing. ChromeOS was (is?) another. I think you could make the case that WebOS was (is?), too. And, rounding back to Microsoft, Windows 8 qualifies in much the same way that WebOS did (does), in that you can author native applications using the web UI stack (HTML/CSS/javascript).

Not to mention that this is sort of supported on iOS, in that you can save a web page as an icon shortcut on your desktop, which, at that point, can make it very difficult to distinguish from a native application. This is either bet-hedging, toe-dipping on Apple’s part, for the scenario of an HTML-app-centric future. Most likely, though, this is a vestigial tail left from the time before the iOS SDK, the time when the web toolkit was the iPhone OS SDK.

My point—if it hasn’t run off by now—is that technologies often present themselves a little too early. A company or two gets really excited and sets up their lemonade stand, but no one seems to be thirsty. The ultimately frustrating part comes, often, when someone sets up a similar stand a few years later and rakes in the cash. The “first mover” in a case like this gets less, or no, advantage, and can even look a bit foolish.

The hardest part is telling the too-early mover apart from the actual fool. How do you know the difference between “this technology isn’t ready, yet,” “people aren’t ready for this technology, yet,” and “this is not and may never be a viable technology”? In that last case, it’s often the case that the viability isn’t as much the issue as a sudden disruptor’s more immediate viability.

Can a browser replace an operating system? So far, no one who has gone that route has won any noticeable market. iOS seems to keep proving that native applications are where the developers, the interesting technologies, and the money are. If a market for such a thing ever shows up, clearly a good portion of the industry seems ready to pounce.