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10 reasons the browser is becoming the universal OS

Peter Wayner | Nov. 19, 2013
Extensible, mutable, and rapidly evolving thanks to open source roots, the Web browser reigns as a platform for users, developers alike.

A bazillion years ago in Internet time (aka 1995), Brendan Eich, Marc Andreessen, and the rest of Netscape looked at the World Wide Web and saw a sparsely tagged world of static documents — a computational desert where a programmer's seed could find no purchase.

They had a different vision: pixels inside the browser rectangle as alive as any user interface. They wanted to add a bit of Turing-complete computability so that programmers could make the pages jump. JavaScript was the answer.

In the beginning, macho C programmers gazed at their creation and laughed. They joked about JavaScript as a toy for elementary-school kids to pop up alert boxes. Eich, however, saw a way for programmers to pull in information from throughout the Web. Soon it came in the form of XMLHttpRequest.

Thirteen years later, and about eight years since the whole game was rebranded "AJAX," the once baby language for kiddies is fast becoming the dominant language for just about everything. The combination of HTML, CSS and JavaScript powers servers, desktops, and laptops. It is, in essence, the standard platform, the new operating system.

Technically, the browser doesn't offer what we've come to expect from the traditional OS. Purists will complain: Does the browser team spend any time worrying about the gnarly tangle of device drivers? Does the browser keep the file system clean and uncorrupted? Does the browser juggle multiple threads of differing priorities and help them share the same processor cores in a way that might be considered fair? The OS guys take one look at Chrome and laugh because that browser just punts, splitting itself into a different process for every Web page, letting the OS layer do the work.

Despite these very legitimate plaints from OS geniuses, the browser is the dominant layer, the one nexus for software, the one switchboard where all power lies. It needs from the operating system a rectangle to draw the Web page, a bit of storage space, and a TCP/IP feed. It does everything else in a cross-platform way that is, when all is considered, relatively free of bugs and other issues.

In return, the browser relieves the OS of doing much except supplying those few information feeds. A PC user expects to be able to insert any old device and have it work with any old collection of devices — a very rare occurrence. A browser user wants a box to type a URL and a way to send clicks to the JavaScript layer. Building a browser-only device is getting ever easier. Heck, Mozilla, a very small group of people, turned out Firefox OS with a tiny fraction of the engineers working at Apple, Google, or BlackBerry.


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