Sunday, April 07, 2013

The converging future of Operating Systems

Recent News:

  • Opera starts using WebKit as their rendering engine - Feb 2013
  • Google folks WebKit, welcome Blink - March 2013
  • Opera follows Google and adapts Blink - March 2013

During a short period of 1 month web has experienced a significant turn of events. A useful coalition between Apple and Google (to use WebKit as the rendering engine for their browsers) that accelerated the ever increasing growth of the web has been parted. What would this mean to the web and to main companies (Apple, Google, Mozilla and Microsoft) involved in this? Is this separation a signal of bigger things to come?
For Google this is all about gearing towards the next big computing revolution, i.e Operating System on the Web, namely Chrome OS. If you want to build an OS on the web, you have to have total control over your browser. Initially google tried to achieve this by evolving the web towards its goals by complementing existing technologies (e.g Developing V8 - Javascript Engine to support javascript). However it slowly realised that it has to take drastic measures and started creating the web tool stack from ground up. Ditching javascript in place of Dart (The all new client side language of the web developed by Chrome) was a significant step towards this direction. Now with forking WebKit it has taken another step towards the same direction. I think Google will come up trumps here. I mean who thought Chrome would make such an impact on the browser market, but they did it. Both politically and technically Google is well positioned to deliver. I’m pretty confident that people will be talking about ‘Chrome Extensions’ in the same way they talk about ‘Apps’ in the mobile world presently.

For Apple this not such a good thing. It’s true that Apple (Safari) will gain the same independance in WebKit development by not having to consider about Google (Chrome) anymore. But Apple is not invested in the web to the same degree that Google is, which means that they might not cash-in on that advantage. In fact Apple wants its iOS to trump the web as the ubiquitous platform across web, desktop and mobile. With the loss of the current contribution to WebKit from Google (it’s close to 50%), we’ll probably see rate of innovations in WebKit going down.

Opera counting on Blink is further proof of this assumption. A reasonable question is whether Blink would end up as another WebKit with Opera and Google locking their horns. I think this will not be the case. My expectation is justified considering the relationship dynamics between the two, where Opera clearly has to follow Google shadows.

Fragmentation is a necessary evil

Another advantage of this move is the necessary fragmentation of a given technology (i.e browsers / rendering engines in this case) to make it more conducive for innovation and progression. Although it’s accepted norm that convergence of standards is a good thing, in the case of a fairly fluid and fastly progressing field like the Web there needs to be a certain amount of duplication of tools and technologies to make sure that innovation is not suppressed by the need for compliance. To put it bluntly, making sure that politics doesn’t trump technology. Mainly compliance driven by politics rather than technology. In that light Google and Apple having their own way with the browsers is a good thing.

What’s with Mobile

With Android been the most common mobile platform, I’m hopeful that we’ll see some good innovation in the mobile browser market as well. With opera also on the same platform this can work well.

And now to OS

Another speculation is the convergence of Android and Chrome OS towards a single OS. Although Google has been criticised in the past for seemly supporting 2 OSs for different platforms, their intention is quite clear that they want these to converge into ‘The OS’ over time.. The move of appointing the Sundar Pichai as the head of both Android and Chrome OS has clearly shown Googles’ intention if it wasn’t evident already.

Somewhat similar to Google, Microsoft is hedging on a converging OS but on Desktop and Mobile (Instead of Web and Mobile). Windows8 already shares a common kernel between the 2. It’s true that Microsoft is already finding it difficult to penetrate the mobile market - specially the consumer market. With Google potentially strengthening its position in the Mobile with these moves Microsoft will find it even harder. However they will still consider themselves to have a good chance in the Enterprise Mobile Market, provided they can get the deployment model fixed.

So as it stands here how the big 3 has put their bets;

  • Google - Web and Mobile (Google will claim that with desktop will transition into web with ‘Chrome OS’)
  • Microsoft - Desktop and Mobile (Counting on Windows 8 to deliver)
  • Apple - Mobile and Desktop (Counting on the consumer market penetration of the i devices)

This convergence is real good news for developers. We may not be too far away from developing a single app and running it in the web, mobile and hopefully in the desktop
Microsoft is quite close on getting a Windows 8 app to work in both mobile and desktop. I’d image Google could get a ‘Chrome OS’ app to work in both Web and Mobile soon. Aren’t we getting closer and closer to the single platform dream world. Remember ‘Write Once, run anywhere’ promised from the past?

Who will take us there this time?

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