Living in the Browser

If you read yesterday’s post, you know that at least one of my students thinks that the Internet is an operating system. It’s kinda funny, but it really got me thinking. I have been seeing these patterns emerging in the recent years and it seems that for many people Windows is just a bloated background process for running Internet Explorer or Firefox which they use for everything else.

I already mentioned that email clients are virtually unheard of amongst college students. If you ask them about their favorite email client, they will probably tell you about Gmail, Yahoo or AOL. Besides, email seems to be something you use to talk to your mom and grandpa these days. To a lot of students email is a dead medium and they much prefer to use tools like IM, Facebook or Twitter for rapid communication.

Social networks are of course browser based. Those who still use email, usually choose webmail interfaces over old fashioned clients. IM is also slowly moving from the desktop space into the browser space. Meebo was probably the first foray into this market, but with the explosion of Web 2.0 and the AJAX craze, all the major IM networks provide web based clients these days. Gmail has one built right into their webmail client. AIM offers AIMExpress, Yahoo offers their WebMessenger. Even Microsoft jumped onto this bandwagon with their own brand of MSN web messenger.

Btw, don’t you guys miss the days when you could prevent your employees and/or student from chatting on your time by simply giving them user level privileges instead of admin, so that they couldn’t install the clients. Sigh… These days are long gone – now if you want to be a BOFH, you need to do content filtering. :(

But that’s not all. There is like a dozen of AJAX based office versions that let you create basic documents, spreadsheets and presentations and export them into several different formats. Abundance of pastebins and services such as Jottit eliminate the need to use the good old notepad for quick notes.

Virtually, every aspect of average users daily life is moving off their desktop and into the online space. All this user needs these days is just a browser and perhaps a rudimentary file manager. In my UI Evolution piece I theorized that the line between web and desktop applications will be blurred via the use of tools like Google Gears and rich AJAX based interfaces. Now I’m not even so sure – why blend the two if you could simply provide users with a browser and internet connection and let them worry about everything else on their own?

This is why the cheepo Walmart Linux laptops are selling like hotcakes. If you told me something like this would happen two years ago, I would not believe you. But it’s true, clueless people are buying Linux machines and are loving them. Why? Because for these customers desktop applications are really becoming irrelevant. All they need is a big icon on the desktop that says “double click for internets” and they are good to go. And since a lot of users got burned by the scary new look of IE 7.0 the might actually think that nicely skinned Firefox or Opera is a nice return to what they knew from IE 6.0 rather than some arcane evil magic as before.

Of course geeks like you and me will still have strong opinions about operating systems, file managers, browsers, email clients and etc. We will still tweak our systems and learn how they work. Gamers will still purchase crazy ass rigs with all the newest bells and whistles. But the general public seems to be blissfully drifting towards a thin-client like infrastructure where their local resources are fully focused on running some kind of browser and everything else is done online. And as long as that browser looks and feels like other browsers, and can deal with the Web 2.0 things, the brand of the browser and the type of OS won’t really even register for them.

[tags]internet, client, email, social networks, ui evolution, browser, pastebin, jottit, meebo, aim, yahoo, msn[/tags]

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7 Responses to Living in the Browser

  1. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I see the trend too.. everything is on the internets now…

    Personally though, I like to draw a line in the sand between what’s on my computer, and what’s on someone else’s computer. I’m not a fan of web apps – they always seem to be like toy versions of something I can load much faster from disk. I prefer to download over streaming because the quality of streams inevitably sucks.

    Until I can get, for a one-time fee, a dedicated chunk of space on a server somewhere, that no-one else can look into or monitor in any way, that has 100% uptime, is guaranteed to be at least as secure as the contents of my hard drive, and broadband has advanced to the kind of speed you’d get from a physical device, that line stays in place.

    What I would like is something that ties together everything I do online – it always bugs me slightly when I have to keep swapping between a handful of different programs to keep track of everything. Probably achievable through firefox extensions though… RSS in a browser tab is nailed, now if I could only get IM and uTorrent in there… (MSN web messenger might be worth a look). I’m kinda expecting the next reply to be “just download x, it does all that” to which I’ll think “but does it do the other things my Firefox setup does?” so I’m basically after new extensions I guess :lol:

    This comment is much longer than I intended. I stop now.

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  2. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Didn’t you get the memo? Starting next year, all desktops will be used for the Internet and phones will be used for messaging, taking pictures, recording video, playing music, organizing (e.g., calendaring), gaming, ……

    A lot of users need very little from computers and most of that can be accomplished online. I had posed a question about a year and a half ago to a friend about how far the trend to “online programs” would go. It’s tough to say, but I see it continuing to progress. Most of the services are free (at least the successful ones) and they pass by word of mouth, so it’s likely to continue, especially with the speed of the average Internet connection constantly improving. Regular computer users don’t do anything that could not easily be done online with the possible exception of gaming (though it depends on their choice of gaming).

    One advantage is accessibility from anywhere. For instance, I use my gmail account to access a few different email accounts, because I use so many different computers throughout the day. Sure, I can set up my personal computers and primary work computers with Thunderbird or similar, but then what about when I am in a lab or at a friend’s?

    Heck, there are already Firefox addons to allow you to navigation with Vim-like controls, edit source in a Vim-like way, and even edit textareas :D

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Precisely, I love my Gmail for exactly that reason – I can access it from everywhere. I usually bounce between 2 or 3 different machines during the day so webmail is convenient.

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  4. Jake UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox FreeBSD says:

    I think this is great. The more users begin to rely on the webbrowsers, the cheaper machines can be made. For instance, you can easily set up a very low spec computer (Celeron 300 with 64MB of RAM) to run Firefox at a decent speed. This computer would be suitable for many people’s needs while still using all current software.

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  5. STop DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Yeah, a trend for sure. Some people even go a bit further: check eyeOS for instance… They have a demo here. Crazy!

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  6. Dave UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    I agree with all of you on the Gmail discussion, but I really just can’t use a browser that scans the contents of my email for advertising. Granted, all clients nowadays are probably storing and datamining all of our emails, but I feel like google just takes it too far.

    That said, it is a free email client, and it really incorporates everything most people need in one screen, but I prefer to spread my emails across different accounts, however much of a pain-in-the-ass it may be.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @STop – I saw the eyeOS some time ago. It is really a great showcase of what you can do with a little bit of AJAX.

    @Dave – true, they do scan your email. Google probably knows more about me that I know myself. And yet, I continue to use their tools because they just work so well. Go figure…

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