Jeff sent Ted Dziuba’s Web OS rant to me a few days ago. Very funny, especially the pictures. But though “browser as operating system” doesn’t compute for desktops, particularly from the perspective of those who write applications, it sure as heck makes sense for end users. Dziuba points out that most people don’t know what Google Docs is. But I’ll bet most know what Facebook, Myspace, or Ancestry.com are. And use ’em. The browser isn’t the OS yet, but we’re definitely moving in that direction. From a technical standpoint, that sucks, as Dziuba and others have argued. But when has the web not sucked, technically speaking? As a hypertext system, it’s primitive. As an interactive technology, it’s cumbersome and arcane. So what? We’re used to software that sucks. The web’s point is, anyone can do it. The web made Gopher disappear because anyone could make a page, edit it, publish it, link, and add to it. And I’m willing to bet the web might make the OS disappear because it makes desktop-based applications similarly obtuse and clunky by comparison.
One reason Dziuba is fired up: Michael Arrington said Windows will go away because Chrome makes the browser the OS. He counters that 73% of users don’t know what Google Docs is, and 94% have never used it. But this ignorance doesn’t indicate much. How many PC users know Microsoft Word is their word processor? that they are using 2003 or 2007? Look, people just don’t know very much about their computers. Ask PC users what version of Windows they use. Most don’t know. Ask a group of computer users what web browsers they use. Again, I bet most have no clue. Hell, I’m about as geeky as anyone, and I had to look the other day when asked what version of the Mac OS I was using (10.4.11, for those counting). The upshot here is the “I don’t knows” make the user ignorance of Google Docs in Dziuba’s rant less an indicator of its obscurity than it appears. Not knowing Google Docs doesn’t mean folks aren’t working on the network. That isn’t to say Google Docs, Twitter, Facebook, and the like are ubiquitous; I agree that a lot of the folks looking around the web and say, “Everyone’s using them!” are overstating the case. But let’s not understate it, either.
Besides, Arrington’s point is less that Windows will technically go away than it will become invisible to end users. Don Norman has been asking for that for years. Arguably, for end users, the operating system disappeared a long time ago. No, not because Norman (or Jef Raskin, or whoever) said it should, but because end users don’t care. They care about applications, not operating systems, and more and more critical applications are driven by the web. What functions does a desktop operating system give users, anyway? The ability to manage files? Files? Who manages files with an OS these days? I’m seeing more people open essays in Word, images in Photoshop, CDs in iTunes. Via export or save as, those applications can copy, rename, etc. Users seldom touch the OS, except to start or switch between applications. And this is doubly true in managed environments where they can’t do anything with the OS anyway.
As more people’s screen time comes from mobile devices, not desktops, OS functionality will become less relevant to end users. Stability? Security? Speed? Ease of use? Sure, we’ll want all that, and those criteria highlight critical differences between Ubuntu, Mac OS, and Windows. But we’ll measure it by what we can do with Firefox, not the Finder–as we always have.