* The Browser as an OS

Posted on September 11th, 2008 by ccheever. Filed under Uncategorized.

There’s been this trend over the last few years where web browsers are assuming more and more of the properties of operating systems.  Google Chrome in particular looks to have been a conscious effort to take a step forward on this front.  It has one process per tab now, a pretty close analog of when operating systems started doing true multitasking in the late ’80s, etc.  And the addition of Gears is part of a trend that’s been happening where people have been using different technologies to have their websites dig deep into desktop functionality (persistent storage, access to devices, etc.

One annoying thing about the web browser as an operating system is that its not very easy to switch between different applications.  If I hit Alt-Tab (on Windows), I usually see 20 different Firefox icons, and I have to slowly flip through them and read the titles to figure out which one is the browser window I want to switch to.  On a Mac, its even worse, since I only see one Firefox icon, so I have to switch to Firefox and then hit Command-Tilde a few times to flip through windows until I find the one I want.

A really simple way to make this a lot better would be to just have the browser’s icon switch to be the favicon of whatever website was in the current tab of that window.  This would let me do stuff like keep Lala or a spreadsheet open in a window that I could switch to as easily as I can switch to iTunes.  I’d love to see some browsers take this approach (maybe it would make sense to have a miniature version of the browser’s logo in the corner of the icon so you had some idea as a user that you were switching to your web browser).

The other thing that happens with operating systems is that over time, stuff that everyone finds useful tends to get built into the operating system since its convenient to have everyone using some standard.  Examples of this are ways of playing sound and window managers (the ability to play MP3s and the Finder are both built in to OS X but had analogs that needed to be custom installed on early computers, for example).  There are a bunch of things that would be really useful to have built-in to the browser that aren’t right now.  One example would be that browsers could keep track of the identity of a person instead of having every website do it individually in its own special way.  This would have some downsides but a good browser implementation would let you manage multiple identities while a single browser was open, just like you can do with su on Unix.  This kind of mechanism would likely help address the massive phishing problems that are sweeping every important password-protected service on the web right now since users could learn to only enter credentials into security dialogs provided by the browser (which is easier to learn than deciphering URLs).  Another example would be that it would be nice for browsers to send geo-location information to services that they contact (1).  This would be better than the current system where services use some IP-to-location mapping which is often inaccurate, and is often creepy (e.g. when a user goes to a new website he/she has never visited and sees ads for singles in his/her zip code.)  The last time this kind of thing happened in a browser was when IE started accepting favicons.  The protocol they choose is kind of lame — sending a second request all the time for a file in Windows icon format only, but I think its still overall good that some way for this to happen exists (the idea I suggested above of using the favicon of a website as the icon of the browser would be much more farfetched without favicons existing already.) (2)

Since the browser market is so fragmented and the web is so standards-driven right now, I think its unlikely that much progress will be made quickly in building these things into browsers or HTTP, etc.  I think Flash is probably in the best position to push a lot of this stuff forward since it is ubiquitous but controlled by a fairly small team and so they can make big changes more quickly.

(1) Hadi Partovi suggested this.

(2) Adam D’Angelo pointed this out.

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