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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. 7: Better sharing models for libraries
Libraries have always been one of the biggest sources of headaches for programmers. One application on the computer wants to use Version 3.4.666 of a library, and the other wants Version 3.4.667, but the operating system can only find the wrong one. When things don't align, some call it "bitrot" and others call it "versioning errors." Either way, everyone loses.

The browser world offers a better way of distributing libraries. Many Web pages link to a few centralized copies of popular libraries like jQuery or Dojo. Instead of using their own version hosted with the website, they link to a central version offered by one of the Web infrastructure companies like Yahoo. These are more likely to be caught by the cache, thus saving the next Web page the time of downloading this version of the library.

These centralized versions are neatly numbered. If two Web pages use Version 1.9.1 of jQuery, then the cache will do its job. If one switches to a newer version, both will function. The cache might not save much time until they start using the same version again, but the switch works without a hitch.

The approach is not perfect. If the central copies are corrupted or infected with malware, every website using them could be jeopardized. But when was the last time this happened? Switching to a local version of the libraries, the simplest fix, wouldn't be hard.

Browser as ultimate OS reason No. 8: Fertile, competitive marketplace
Once upon a time, there was only Netscape. Then Internet Explorer dominated. Now it seems like everyone has a browser that's competing. Chrome, Firefox, IE, Safari, and Opera are just the beginning. There are dozens of other minor browsers with their own devotees. The mobile platform has even more.

All of them are competing for eye share. The best one wins, but only until the next upgrade cycle. Then the competition begins again.

This battle breeds quality. The best browsers with the most useful features flourish while the casual hacks disappear. This doesn't always happen in the world, but when it does it's great for consumers. When it's good for consumers, it demonstrates the power of the browser layer.

Browser as ultimate OS reason No. 9: SVG, canvas, vector graphics, great user interfaces
The early Web pages may have been slightly dull, but that was before clever programmers figured out how to animate the CSS properties of a DIV or a SPAN. Now rectangles and the words within can flip, spin, turn, fade, blink, and even — perish the thought — just sit there.

 

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