Towards the Web OS

Cesar Torres analyzed the new Facebook profile design yesterday as did TechCrunch. Both come to the same conclusion: Facebook is trying to become a web operating system. Both cite the use of a Mac OSX-style menu design (a weak indicator of an “OS” in my opinion) but Cesar goes farther to mention Facebook’s application platform, chat client and data portability developments. So, does an app platform plus a menu bar plus chat an OS make? Even a nascent OS? My answer to that is that Facebook, while acting more and more like a web-based OS is just a part of the Web OS.

What is an OS?

The whole concept of what makes an OS is a bit hard to pin down. At this point, I’d love to offer up the definition of an OS from my undergrad operating systems book but it appears to be missing chapter one. Suffice it to say it would have said something about CPU management, process management and probably something about batch jobs (it was really old when I got to it in 2000). Instead I’ll quote Wikipedia’s article on the topic:

An operating system is the software component of a computer system that is responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of the computer. The operating system (OS) acts as a host for application programs that are run on the machine. As a host, one of the purposes of an operating system is to handle the details of the operation of the hardware. This relieves application programs from having to manage these details and makes it easier to write applications.

If you’re a programmer and you see something that promises to relieve you from the details of something, you know you’re seeing an abstraction. Programmers love abstractions. In the name of simplification, we layer abstraction after abstraction on top of each other until we feel like we’ve got something easy enough to be productive. (And then we write something on top of that.) We write an OS to hide the hardware, we write programming languages that hide the details of the OS, we write APIs to make tasks easier in the programming languages and on and on and on. Fundamentally, an OS is just an abstraction over the bare metal.

This definition of the OS as an abstraction layer for application development is, of course, pretty technical. I would say that most people consider an OS (if they were to consider it) as the thing that lets them run their email app, their word processor or their web browser. In general, it should fade into the background and let people get on with what they want to get done using their actual apps. If it does bring itself into the foreground it should be by providing shiny eye candy and not with shiny blue screens.

Here’s the kicker though… Beyond just running our apps, we also expect our OS to allow them to share data. As OSes have evolved, we’ve come to think of them less as a resource management tool and more of a collection of useful apps that can all work reasonably well together when facilitated by the OS environment. This goes back at least to the Unix concept of small programs that take an input, perform a useful function and provide an output. This allows for all sorts of nifty command line piping and chaining of outputs to inputs; all facilitated by the operating system. I believe you could say this pattern is the precedent for today’s mashups.

So here’s a working definition. An OS is the thing that manages the hard low-level stuff so people can write apps so we can get things done by using and combining those apps. So does a web OS do this but just on the web?

Are we there yet?

I think we do have a nascent Web OS but it’s not one that’s provided by a single entity. It’s not Facebook or Google. It goes across the web as a whole. Each of these services provides a component of the overall experience much in the same way that Unix utilities do. Though Facebook search reminds us of OSX Spotlight; search on the web OS is located at google.com (for now).

Of course, the Web OS is being built beyond just our user experience interacting with web sites through our browser. The data sharing of the Web OS is being enabled by a host of technologies available to application developers. At the lowest level, we have the fundamental architecture of the web itself, HTTP, which allows for any kind of resource to be located and accessed. We can use HTTP to access any sort of data, but the critical types of data to the web OS are the meta ones that we can use to actually describe data: XML, JSON and even HTML. These form the basis for all the APIs we’ve come to know and love from all the web applications out there that have our data. Over the past few years we’ve begun to scratch the surface of what we can do when we can pipe information from one app to another via the environment provided us by this Web OS. From Google Maps mashups to the nearly infinite number of Twitter apps, we’re beginning to leverage these services in all kinds of ways. Once application developers can begin to rely on these services to abstract away the complexity of performing certain tasks whether that’s raw data storage, identity, search, messaging or the social graph then we’ll have a true Web OS.

Right now, there are still too many barriers. Many (maybe most) apps don’t allow data to move from place to place or put up walled gardens around what APIs and platforms they do offer. With data portability, we’re moving in the right direction (primarily with social data at least), but we’re not there yet. And, of course, there are still tons of applications that don’t (and may never) live in the cloud and so can’t participate fully in the emerging OS.

If we’re not there yet, where are we going?

We’ve still got a long way to go yet with the Web OS, but the pieces are emerging. Applications are moving into the cloud and we’re in the early days of programmatic communication between our various web utilities. We’re progressively abstracting away the hard parts of building really complex and powerful systems. That’s why programmers obsess about abstractions; they make hard things simple. And when hard things become simple, you’ve just taken a step to making even harder things possible. Ultimately the Web OS goes way beyond the placement of menus in Facebook, it will provide us the platform to make the previously impossible possible.

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3 comments

  1. I think, as a designer, I hit on the parts that resonate with me with an operating system: the GUI. Ask me and I’ll tell you ’til I’m Aqua Blue in the face that the user interface is the most integral part of any operating system, but I would wager that a software or hardware developer would punch me in my blue face.

    I think you’re right in saying that the web as a whole is like an OS with the technical definition you provided.

    I still think the new Facebook navigation looks like the OS X menu bar and that Zuckerberg is a Jobs-abee. 😉

  2. […] writer Erick Schonfeld also wrote about this topic on the same day as I did. Also, check out Hayes Davis’ response to the two posts, for a more technical perspective (one that I totally agree […]

  3. […] Inspired by conversations with some obviously smart people at a recent Semantic Web Austin event, I’ve undertaken to restart my education on semantic web technologies like RDF, RDFa, Microformats, etc. When I wear my web developer hat, I’m definitely an advocate of clean semantic markup that correctly describes the structure of the data on the page. These technologies take that approach further (in some cases much, much further). In general, that seems like an unquestionably good idea. More semantic structure means more data portability and data discovery and therefore a more powerful web. It’s probably even a necessary step towards a WebOS. […]

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