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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.

And the programmers are following users to the browser to deliver functionality in the main place users expect to find it these days. Here are 10 reasons why the browser is now king.

Browser as ultimate OS reason No. 1: The rise of vast, rich Web applications
Somewhere along the line, the Web page turned into a full application. The best way to feel this is to try to start up something like Gmail with a clean cache and a painfully slow Internet connection. The program is large enough that it takes too long to download all of the bits and pieces of JavaScript. There may be close to 100 files in the average download. Google thoughtfully recognizes that Gmail may be a bit too big for these occasions, so it offers a basic HTML version that is much smaller.

Gmail is one example of the thousands of large programs that regularly run in our browsers. Many let us do the lion's share of tasks once left to native applications. There are integrated development environments (Codio, Cloud 9, and more), image editing packages (AIE, among others), and plenty of HTML5 games (see below). The browser is not limited to static documents and filling out forms.

A long time ago, people would point to the standard apps for reading mail or editing photos and say, "Can your browser do that?" Now the answer is yes.

Browser as ultimate OS reason No. 2: Easy extensibility via plug-ins
All the major browsers have their own plug-in architecture. If you want to do something clever with the browser, the plug-in layer is ready to take your code. You write some code in JavaScript and the browser adds it as a feature. You can add new routines for cleaning up the layout or snarf certain valuable information like citations for your paper. The plug-in layer for the browsers opens up the insides to fiddling, and it does so in a cleaner, safer way than can be accomplished with traditional operating systems.

Browser as ultimate OS reason No. 3: Its open source foundation
There are many different meanings loaded into the phrase "open source," and the browser illustrates one of the most influential. The Web's languages have always been easy to understand — at least compared to native binary codes — and when the early developers included the "view source" option, they made it easy for programmers to learn from each other.

Openness encourages innovation, and this is one of the biggest reasons we've seen the browser layer swell with so many clever additions. Building software for the browser layer is easier, encouraging more work to be done there. The pace of innovation is blinding because good ideas are emulated and improved quickly. Everyone can learn from everyone else's work, then teach everyone in return. This feature alone has created so many programmers that it should be considered a national treasure by those committees in Washington who are always campaigning to create more STEM students.

 

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