Last Thursday I tweeted: “I strive to maintain an open mind when nontechnical people talk about the ‘Internet OS’ or ‘Web OS’. Sometimes it's tough.” I got some grumbles by email and I think the subject is worth more discussion. Let me be more specific: Neither the Internet nor the Web is much like an OS. And even if it were, that’d be the wrong way to think about what’s going on right now.
I’ve had this argument before. In March of 2007, Mike Arrington and I shared a stage at a startup event on the Sun campus, and talked about “Web 2.0”. Mike talked about a Web Operating System, I talked about people and information and business. Dan Farber reported ably. I don’t think either of us convinced each other.
I: It’s About People Not Technology · The “Web OS” meme is harmful because it’s about technology. But the Internet’s killer app is people, has always been, will always be. Every single step forward has involved finding new routes and patterns and tools for people to use interacting with other people. No exceptions.
At the level of experience, Web 2.0 is about voices being heard. It used to be that there was a sanctified high priesthood that was licensed to publish: Journalists, novelists, and academics. Everyone else was an outsider, relegated to Letters-to-the-Editor or Speakers’ corner.
Nothing can possibly be more important than the experience of tens of millions of people, formerly outsiders, given a voice and an audience and a chance to join the global conversation.
This has been technically possible since there was an Internet. The crucial change was when Dave Winer and a few others proved that personal micro-publishing was fulfilling and self-supporting, by doing it.
Granted, a majority of people don’t publish—but if the world is even remotely like the population here at Sun, the knowledge that you’re empowered to do so is an attitude-changer.
Also granted, a majority of people who do publish don’t find big audiences. But that doesn’t matter; as Mena Trott was among the first to point out, “Publishing to fifteen people is perfectly OK if they’re the right fifteen people”.
II: It’s About Information Not Technology · Or to use another label, the Long Tail. We’re in a world where we expect a significant amount of the information and inspiration and creativity and criticism and collaboration and stories and pictures and music and movies to come from the many at the edge, not just the few at the center. Yes, there will always be a loud-voiced few at the center, but they’re no longer alone.
The traffic patterns have changed forever and they’re not changing back. Language and its flows are arguably one of the defining characteristics of Homo sapiens. The impact of all this information redirection on who we are and what we do is central. To focus on the technology is to miss the important point.
III: It’s About Business Not Technology · Lots of modern business is all about pumping information. The classic example would be finance; banks are giant information pumps with cash machines at the edges.
Organizations (business, governments, clubs, political parties, religions) who figure out how to surf the new information flow will succeed and prosper; those who push back will be swept away.
And it won’t have anything to do with whether anything’s like an OS or not.
IV: Nobody Uses the OS Anyhow · Suppose the Net or Web were OS-like. So what? Nobody programs to one of those any more. I bet if I asked a survey of 100 high-level professional developers what was the last time they actually coded a Unix or Linux or Win32 system call, I’d get a blank stare.
Everybody I know is, as a matter of principle, working in a higher-level programming environment that goes to great lengths to abstract away the OS: Java, Ruby, Apache-project C with APR, you name it.
V: It’s Platforms That Matter · When it comes to technology, what really matters is the platform you use to build with. Looking at your site from the outside, it’s not obvious to a non-expert (and perhaps not to an expert either) whether you built it with PHP or Rails or Django or JSF or ASP.NET.
But the choice of platform that you build with is incredibly important; in fact, most of the interesting new software innovations in the recent years have been in platform technology that let you build something good in less time with less pain that’s more maintainable.
The experience of building something with Rails is wildly different from that of a Java EE wrangler, which is wildly different still from that of someone in Microsoft-land. A common “Web OS”? Don’t see one.
In another sense, it’s reasonable to consider the Web as a platform; as Dave Winer memorably said “The platform that doesn’t have a vendor.” From the business and end-user and administrator point-of-view, this kind of works; but not from the seats where the people who build the apps sit.
In still another sense, it’s sane to refer to the browser as a platform; it’s certainly where a lot of code gets built. But it’s no more an OS than Gtk or WPF or Aqua is. It’s closest to the user but it’s a small piece of the big system.
The closest you’ll ever get to the essence of the Web-itself-as-platform is in working closely with HTTP and URIs, for example in implementing the Atompub protocol. But most developers working with Atompub will just use a handy library that fits into their Ruby or Java or C# ambiance, hardly even noticing.
VI: And Anyhow, It’s Not Like an OS · The OS is the software that sits between you and the hardware. In practice, it offers a set of brutally stupid and complex services for managing storage and networking and the lowest level of user interaction. It’s difficult and unpleasant to use.
I’ve used several and even contributed in a small way to one or two. Neither the Internet nor the Web are anything like one in any important way. Thank goodness.