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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.

Browser as ultimate OS reason No. 4: Metaprogramming
Openness doesn't just mean the source code is available for others to copy, revise, and extend — it also applies to the data in the browser right now. Some software packages like Greasemonkey make it possible to write software that runs on top of the software running on a Web page. Greasemonkey can reach right into the Web page code and resize an element, change a variable, or rewrite the text itself. It's like open source coding in real time.

There have been attempts to offer this kind of feature to classical operating systems, but the scripting systems have never had access akin to Greasemonkey's in the browser. Even the most sophisticated scripting tools, like AppleScript, access the code only through an API. Purists may not like someone messing around with their variables, but they don't have as much fun. This is why some of the cleverest tools are available in the browsers.

Browser as ultimate OS reason No. 5: Multiplatform simplicity and mutability
Mobile devices come with browsers. Refrigerators come with browsers. Can mobile refrigerators with browsers be far behind? Why not? Everyone wants to put HTML, JavaScript, and CSS in charge of a rectangle on their machines because it's easy to adapt. Is your screen short and wide or is it tall and thin? It doesn't matter because HTML flows into the space it's given. The CSS-driven layout engine figures it out.

There will be some who point out, quite correctly, that not every Web page looks good on odd-shaped screens. Some websites look like a car hit them when they're viewed on a tall, thin mobile screen. The elements are scattered everywhere, and nothing lines up. Something went wrong with the float styles.

Those problems are fading as Web designers learn how to plan ahead for the wider range of browser-based opportunities that are appearing. They're learning to be flexible and elegant so that the content can flow easily regardless of the device on which it will appear.

Browser as ultimate OS reason No. 6: A clean abstraction layer
The Web's open source foundation encourages rapid evolution of best practices for design. There are still some corners of the tech world — say, Apple — where a few designers insist everything be done their way using their native framework. But for all of Apple's success in wielding Vader-grade control, it can't beat the Web. Every innovation created for iOS is quickly imitated and rolled into the major frameworks that dominate the HTML5 world.

The browser's democratic populism lets the best ideas bubble up as everyone constantly experiments. This is in large part due to HTML and CSS, which have evolved into a clear abstraction layer that separates concerns, making collaboration easier for everyone. Designers and programmers can target their specific layer and, where possible, bring in predesigned libraries and frameworks to leverage the work of other designers and programmers in their own code.


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