There are two kinds of Web surfers in the world. Some prefer to open new pages as tabs within the same browser window. Others open each Web page as a new window, accumulating lots of entries on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. On the face of it, this battle between Ctrl-T and Ctrl-N seems totally mundane. A few years from now, however, I think we’ll look back on the gradual drift to tabs as the browser’s bid for emancipation. Using tabs to multitask eliminates the need for new windows. Down the line, it may eliminate the need for Windows altogether. When you open a new tab, it’s as if your browser is telling you, Pay no attention to anything else on your computer. Everything you need is right here.
Mozilla made tabbed browsing mainstream by incorporating the feature into Firefox. Now the software nonprofit is looking for new ways to keep all of your activities in-house. Last month, Mozilla announced a design contest soliciting ideas for a better way to manage lots of pages at once. “Today, 20+ parallel sessions are quite common,” the announcement read. “[T]he browser is more of an operating system than a data display application.”
This isn’t so much mission creep for Firefox as mission ambush. Chrome, the Google browser that launched last fall, betrayed similar ambitions in a 38-page comic book that was created to promote the product. “Today, most of what we use the Web for on a day-to-day basis aren’t just Web pages, they’re applications,” read the first panel of the first page.
In the last few years, scores of applications that your operating system used to manage have migrated to the browser: word processors, IM clients, e-mail, games, music players, personal finance tools, and on and on. Which leads inevitably to the question: If the primary function of computers these days is to run a browser and connect to the Internet, do we really need Windows and its 50 million lines of code?
The browser-as-OS is certainly an attractive idea, if only as an alternative to Windows’ bloat and sluggish performance. Firefox, with its open platform and sprawling library of free add-ons, seems in theory like a much better model for how your PC’s core software should work.
Developers at Mozilla, Google, and other non-Microsoft shops are eager to talk about how we’re all set to relocate personal computing to the browser. In real life, though, not many of us have fully embraced the idea of porting all of our treasured applications to the Web. You may use Google Docs when you need to collaborate with someone at work, but that novel you’ve been chipping away at is on your hard drive as a Word document.
Mozilla and Google are counting on changing the way you think. Sam Schillace, who developed the application that would become Google Docs, described the transition to me this way: Like many new technologies, Web-based office products went through an initial “dancing bear” phase, where novelty was the main attraction. Next, second-wave adopters came to the product because they have a specific need for its sharing tools, either because they want to collaborate or because of the ease of accessing a document from many different machines. The third wave, Schillace hopes, will eventually be drawn in by the product’s austerity. In the programming world, this is known as the “worse is better” approach. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Google Docs will never have all the tools and gizmos that are built into Microsoft Word. That’s because it’s easier for a new technology to lure in skeptics if it’s simple and straight-forward, even if that means sacrificing functionality.
Anyone who has skirmished with Word’s animated assistant Clippy—may he rest in peace—has a horror story about battling Word’s oft-unnecessary complexity. All in all, though, Word works pretty well, and getting people to stop using something they’re satisfied with is never easy. Excel, too, is a masterful program, and one that far outshines any of the online wannabes featurewise.
It’s worth remembering, too, that Windows is more than just an interface for running programs. It also manages your hardware—the hard drive and video card as well as peripherals like webcams and external memory devices. Even if Firefox or Chrome takes over application management someday soon, we’ll still need something to handle all of that under-the-hood stuff. One intriguing option is a piece of software called HyperSpace that debuted in late 2007. HyperSpace is essentially a bare-bones OS that can fire up some of your computer’s resources right when it boots, long before Windows has burped and sputtered awake from its coma. (The company that makes HyperSpace, Phoenix, is a major supplier of BIOS software, the code that runs immediately when you turn on your machine and takes attendance for all your hardware.) The current version of the product, which works on certain laptops—specifications here—loads in a few seconds and can get online, run Firefox, and boot a handful of other programs. These days, you can get a lot done with just that tiny amount of software. (If you’re curious to try HyperSpace, you can demo it for free for 21 days. After that, running the software requires an annual fee.)
Pair a Web browser—which runs all your programs—and a lightweight OS—which fires up the browser—and you begin to see what a viable alternative to a Windows machine might look like. There’s one piece left: Whichever browser you choose has to be able to handle all that activity. This is where Chrome starts to look prescient. As Slate’s Farhad Manjoo has written, Google’s browser handles the Web’s whiz-bang programming with remarkable smoothness. Chrome may lack Firefox’s library of add-ons, but it ensures that fancy Web applications are less likely to devour your computer’s resources. It also does a creditable job of keeping single frozen Web pages from bringing down the whole application. (Imagine if every time Word crashed it brought all of Windows down with it—that’s where most browsers are today.)
Chrome may command only 1.8 percent of the market, but it has already incited an arms race among competitors who realize that browsers must be stable for Web apps to take off. At this point, I would give up Word—and maybe even my beloved Excel—for a computer that boots instantly, lacks the headaches of Windows, and runs a reliable browser that houses serviceable alternatives to Office products. We’re not there yet, and the transition will surely involve a pandemic of bugs and compatibility nightmares. And let’s remember that Microsoft has killed off potential usurpers before. Nevertheless, I’m betting this would-be giant slayer has a fighting chance.