The Web OS is Already Here…

by Luke Wroblewski November 7, 2011

The Web OS is already here… it’s just not what you thought it would be. Web technologies are currently powering content and interactions across multiple devices effectively turning the most popular native applications into Web browsers. The end result is a widely distributed and used Web-based operating system. Just not the one you imagined.

The Web OS Vision

Google’s Chrome OS and its manifestation in Chrome Books typify what most technologists thought a Web-driven operating system would look like. Powerful applications running within a Web browser that allow you to accomplish everything possible in native applications: email, word processing, spreadsheets, graphics editing, photo management, you name it.

Chrome OS actually does all this. Flip open a Chrome Book and the only thing you see is a Web browser with tabs to manage multiple Web-based applications including great versions of all the “killer” apps mentioned above. The Web browser is the operating system and Web sites built with HTML, CSS, and Javascript are the apps. It’s just like you pictured a Web OS, right? Well, it certainly is like the one I drew up six years ago.

Chrome OS

But Google’s effort hasn’t caught on. In fact, I’m guessing they are having a hard time getting people to adopt it. A very different Web OS, however, is not only growing but it’s becoming increasingly pervasive.

The Web Browser Has Won

The Web browser has become a “killer app” on pretty much every operating system available. Even holding it’s own against complete armies of native applications on mobile platforms -the place where many people decry the Web is dead!

Web browsers are used by 42.9% of all US mobile subscribers. Native apps are used by 42.5% (in the 3 month period ending Sept 2011). As mobile Internet use has grown, use of the browser has remained consistent. Last year, 36.4% used their mobile browser and 34.4% used applications they downloaded. That’s one app (the browser) holding its own against any number of downloaded apps.

Facebook’s data tells a similar tale. The social network’s 350 million mobile users are split 50-50 between mobile web and native apps.

The story on tablets isn’t any different. The most popular daily tablet activities are browsing the Web (67%), email (54%), social networking (39%), gaming (30%), and reading books (17%). Forty percent of tablet users say they get their news mainly through a Web browser while 31% use news apps and the browser equally.

So the Web browser gets used a lot. But it’s just one app. What if it were every app?

Apps Are Browsers

Today’s most popular media applications are built using Web browser rendering engines. This allows them to display content and interactions across multiple platforms using standard Web technologies.

Apple’s iTunes is the number one music store in the world with 16 billion songs downloaded and 20 million songs available. It’s also using WebKit to not only render the iTunes Store but the iTunes LP rich media format as well.

Netflix video streaming is the largest source of Internet traffic in North America. Their streaming service is also built on WebKit and uses JavaScript, HTML5, and CSS3 to “build user interfaces that are delivered to millions of Netflix customers on game consoles, Blu-ray players, and Internet-connected TVs”.

Netflix Devices

Amazon.com is the world’s largest bookseller. Less than four years after introducing their digital Kindle book format, Amazon customers are now purchasing more Kindle books than print books -hardcover and paperback combined. Amazon recently announced they are replacing their existing Kindle format with one based on HTML5 and CSS3.

As these examples illustrate, the largest digital music, movie, and book services are delivering content to millions of people by rendering Web markup, styling, and scripts –effectively by being Web browsers.

Apps Have Browsers Within Them

Many of today’s native applications contain Web browsers by default. That is, they have the ability to display and run Web pages and scripts within an integrated “Web view” in the application itself. And, on mobile operating systems, most native applications do:

  • Facebook’s iPhone application is the most popular native mobile app. It makes extensive use of Web technologies by “putting an actual browser inside the app.”
  • Microsoft’s Bing application is written in HTML5 and essentially the same across all native clients and the Web.
  • Google’s native Gmail application on iOS is “just a wrapper around a UIWebView”.
  • LinkedIn’s native mobile applications consist of “Web content most of the time, all within a native frame”.

Linkedin Apps

So not only do the world’s most popular native applications have the ability to render Web content, they are doing so extensively.

The Actual Web OS

In order to understand why the integration of the Web browser within the World’s most popular native applications is evidence a Web OS is already here, we have to invert our understanding of an operating system.

Instead of thinking about the OS as a shell or container within which applications live and run, we need to think of it as the internal connective tissue that all apps share -working inside out of every app instead of outside in.

Let me restate that simply. The Web (browser) is inside of every application instead of every application being inside the Web (browser).

The later is the Chrome OS model. The former is what’s happening right now. This creates enormous opportunities for Web content and interactions (HTML, CSS, Javascript) to be accessible not only in Web browsers (which as we saw are available on nearly all platforms and used a lot) but within every native application as well.

Welcome to the Web OS (and sorry HP).