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The Web IS an OS. Get Over It.

By - September 07, 2008

There is always a backlash against anyone calling anything the Web OS, mainly because, as folks point out quite accurately, the term “operating system” technically applies to the stack on top of PC hardware that interfaces between that hardware and a user’s intentions.

Here’s an example of what I mean – A Web OS? Are You Dense? In this story, the author, who I don’t know but I certainly do respect, gives Arrington a ton of shit for “not knowing anything about computers.” Well, color me dense because, yes, in fact, there is a Web OS, and it will be built on top of the Windows/Mac/PC OS, and that’s just fine with me, because I could care less about technical purist theories of what an OS is. I don’t care if it’s built on top of Windows, which is a “classic OS”. In fact, Windows, as I recall, was built on top of DOS for most of its career, so what does that make Windows? Not an OS? And DOS was built on top of some arcane machine language, I am sure. And we can keep dancing on the head of definitional pins, but to me….

To me, operating systems are computer-mediated realities that help us get stuff done. And to my mind, that makes Chrome an OS. A system that lets me operate sh*t. End of story.

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25 thoughts on “The Web IS an OS. Get Over It.

  1. diego says:

    Why the attempt to redefine an expression that has a very precise meaning in computer science? According to your new definition, pretty much any application could be considered an operating system as long as it is a “computer-mediated reality that helps you get stuff done”. Excel or PowerPoint would be operating systems, as well as the software that powers this blog.

    This confusion can be irritating to those of us who have studied computer science and understand the difference between operating systems, applications and programming languages. It’s the same as saying that a bone is a muscle, or that copyright is the same as trademark.

  2. Evan says:

    Fair enough.

    I’m now going to start calling my rolodex a search engine because, by golly, I want to find a contact and it helps me do it.

    I’m also going to start calling my house a social networking site because, by golly, every week I keep in touch with friends by hosting a poker game there.

    I’m also going to start calling my pastor’s weekly church newsletter a blog because he posts his opinions and then we gather together to discuss them.

  3. RichB says:

    The problem is not specifically calling Chrome a WebOS, rather, what don’t you call a WebOS?

    For example, is IE a WebOS? Is Microsoft Word a WebOS?

    Or could a WebOS be an even high level of abstraction? Popfly?

    So how do YOU define WebOS? If you can define it so precisely that it only covers Chrome and other systems of it’s ilk, then great – but so far I’ve never seen it.

  4. Adam Fisk says:

    Who cares? Dziuba’s just trying to get attention. Clearly the many APIs and platforms available on the web are analogous to an OS in the sense that you program to them. Duh. Call it an OS, don’t call it an OS. Just do something interesting instead of writing posts designed to piss people off to get page views (talking to Dziuba, not you Mr. Battelle).

    What better way to get page views than to call out Arrington? That’s what this is about, not some legitimate intellectual debate.

  5. Agree. If you think of the OS as a bunch of hardware drivers, then the browser isn’t an OS, it’s a virtual machine. But if you think of the OS as a platform to build other applications, then the browser is one hot shit operating system.

  6. Dave Barry says:

    People, seriously. Dziuba gave Arrington shit because he said that the “web OS” would drive out Windows. He called bullshit precisely for the reasons you give above – you’re talking about two different things. There’s obviously no way a “Web OS” could drive out a traditional OS in the sense that Arrington describes. The Web OS can’t exist without a hardware OS underneath, the point I believe Dziuba was trying to make.

  7. Rick says:

    So, basically your (and Arrington’s) argument is: grass is something that has a color, blue is a color, so I’m calling grass blue, na na na na….

    Seriously.

    I rarely agree with Dziuba’s reactionary “i-hate-you-f***ing-amateurs” rants, but this is ridiculous. An OS is an OS. Chrome isn’t, and neither is the web.

  8. Adam Fisk says:

    @Dave Barry Point granted. Re-reading Arrington’s original article does lend a little more credence to ol’ Ted’s post. Here’s the key segment:

    “Expect to see millions of web devices…that completely strip out the Windows layer and use the browser as the only operating system the user needs.”

    That’s certainly a crude analysis and technically just incorrect, but we all know what the guy’s trying to say.

    I still think Dziuba’s just trying to get page views rather than talk about something valuable. That’s the problem when you start getting hits. You just want more and do whatever it takes to get them. It must stop.

  9. Edo Z. says:

    Ridiculuos. With the same “arguments” you can prove that the web is a nice vase of flowers. End of story.

  10. John says:

    The only way layers get added is if it makes it get easier on the programmer. Hes right that a WebOS is bullshit and the browser is just a html/javascript+plugins layer

  11. The way I perceive the term operating system is exactly the way Wikipedia describes it in the first two sentences:

    “An operating system (commonly abbreviated OS and O/S) is the software component of a computer system that is responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of the computer. The operating system acts as a host for applications that are run on the machine.”

    Adding the word “web” in front of operating system shifts the above definition to:

    “The operating system acts as a host for applications that are run on the Internet.”

    In other words, a browser can be a WebOS. Or even a social network can be a WebOS. Social networks host applications. Browsers host applications.

  12. nmw says:

    I thought Amazon S3 was supposed to be the web OS — are there now 2 web OS providers? … or perhaps even more?

    Don’t get me wrong: I have no idea whatsoever what webOS is supposed to mean.

    whois.schlund.info tells me that “techcrunch.com” is a published by:

    First name: Michael
    Last name: Arrington
    Organisation:
    Street: [PUBLIC INFORMATION]
    City: [PUBLIC INFORMATION]
    Country code: [PUBLIC INFORMATION]
    Telephone: [PUBLIC INFORMATION]
    Telefax:
    E-Mail: [PUBLIC INFORMATION]

    (note that I have replaced some of the contact details with the string “[PUBLIC INFORMATION]“)

    Now that is something I can understand!

    :) nmw

  13. dir says:

    Yup, it makes the perfect gift for that officemate or colleague who you thought had everything.

  14. ARTI says:

    Who cares? Dziuba’s just trying to get attention. Clearly the many APIs and platforms available on the web are analogous to an OS in the sense that you program to them. Duh. Call it an OS, don’t call it an OS. Just do something interesting instead of writing posts designed to piss people off to get page views (talking to Dziuba, not you Mr. Battelle).

  15. While there can always be debate about what an “OS” is or isn’t, the truth is that the trend is towards online and web services.

    In that sense, we can look at a browser as a “operating system.”

    It won’t be long until someone implements each browser “tab” as a unique Virtual Machine… that’s the ultimate sand-box Chrome is implementing with its tabs. :)

  16. dave says:

    normally i’d dismiss the commentary, but considering that over the past 5 years google has hired the entire original Plan9 team from bell labs (rob pike, sean quinlan et al), one has to consider that the internet as OS model is a very real way of thinking at elgoog, and has been since 2003, not since ‘chrome’ was released – they just need their own browser to get all of their burdensome web apps to work correctly across all platforms, don’t read into it…

  17. Winston says:

    I am all in favour of evolving language but I also understand the importance of clear and unambiguous communication.

    With the above definition of an OS it seems that the term becomes pretty meaningless. Is Office an OS, is IE an OS? I think I will stick to the traditional definition for now!

    That said, I understand why people are making this connection but to me it seems one jump too many to be useful!

  18. JG says:

    But if you think of the OS as a platform to build other applications, then the browser is one hot shit operating system.

    I must admit that my first reaction is to think of the OS in the traditional computer science sense.. as a platform for abstracting away hardware so as to allow simpler application development.

    But then I got to really thinking about it, and realized: What is the net? It’s a series of tubes. Joking.. joking. But seriously, it’s a set of wires and routers and, well, hardware. And how are we going to make that hardware run? Well, IP (internet protocol) is the OS that allows TCP and UDP to run. TCP and UDP is the OS that allows HTTP and FTP and SMTP and NNTP to run. And HTTP is the OS that allows chat applications and calenders to run.

    So in a way, the “web” OS really does abstract away hardware.. the wires themselves.. from the applications being built on it. I begrudgingly admit that you really can talk about a web OS in the purist sense. Only it isn’t just the browser. It’s the whole stack.. from the browser down through all the HTTP/TCP/IP protocols on which it sits.

    But then I got to thinking: If the Web is an OS, and we’re really talking about the browser being that component of the OS, then Silicon Valley has to take a collective long, hard look in the mirror, sigh, and realize that Microsoft was right. Remember, everyone? When Microsoft was claiming that IE was an “integral part of Windows”? I think most of us, myself included, balked at such a statement. “Ridiculous!” we thought to ourselves. “Windows is an OS. IE is an application. Those are different layers of the stack! IE cannot be an integral part of Windows. Microsoft is just trying to use its monopoly power to control everything. The statement itself, about IE being an integral part, has no objective technical or logical merit!” In fact, to this day Google loves to trot out the “Microsoft is a convicted monopolist” meme, and most of what went into that conviction was their stance around integrating Windows and IE.

    Well, look at what everyone is now claiming. The browser is the OS! It may not be the OS for a single computer, but it is the OS for the network itself.

    And so all of Microsoft’s arguments about needing IE to be an integral part of Windows so that they could innovate.. while that logic smacked of pure b.s. to me at the time, in hindsight I think we all have to realize that if Microsoft were trying to become the Web OS, then IE *would* have to be an integral part of Windows. Not being able to integrate would stop MS’s ability to innovate, exactly as MS claimed.

    Now there are those of us that still would never want a Microsoft Web. There are other considerations, such as open standards, etc. So I’m not giving MS a free pass, here.

    I am simply pointing out that, at the core of their argument, Microsoft was right. Arrington has all but admitted, above, that they were right. Google, of all ironies, has also now proved them right. (I’ve even seen a number of bloggers calling for Google to work directly with chipset manufacturers, so as to be able to ship computers running Chrome, natively on the hardware itself. If that isn’t a vision of the supreme mashup of OS and web OS, into just that same sort of OS that Microsoft was trying to create by integrating Windows and IE, then I don’t know what is.)

    Flame away ;-) (And no, I do not work for Microsoft.)

  19. vBulletin says:

    normally i’d dismiss the commentary, but considering that over the past 5 years google has hired the entire original Plan9 team from bell labs (rob pike, sean quinlan et al), one has to consider that the internet as OS model is a very real way of thinking at elgoog, and has been since 2003, not since ‘chrome’ was released – they just need their own browser to get all of their burdensome web apps to work correctly across all platforms, don’t read into it…

  20. N3dd3rwurl says:

    Yon argument is specious – save the English language from speciousnosity!!!

  21. Laura Brown says:

    I don’t think a pundit like yourself should make the statement “It let’s me operate shit” (containing both a grammatical error and a crude comment). It undermines the gravitas you just gained with a prominent quote in the Los Angeles Times Business Section today.

  22. John Battelle says:

    @laura – You are right. I wrote it quick and dirty, and I fixed the grammar and added an “*” over the “i” so folks won’t be too offended the second time I use the word.

  23. DC says:

    Correction: “I could NOT care less about technical purist theories of what an OS is…”

  24. I think the Web has blurred the distinction between operating systems and applications. Since now the most popular browsers serve as platforms for toolbars and plug-ins as well as client interfaces for server-based applications, pretty much every traditional Computer Science paradigm has been blended into a meta-system that really hasn’t been named or properly defined yet.

  25. Matt McKnight says:

    It’s a stupid, stupid name. How is the Web OS different from just the Web? The less technical term “Platform” is what is primarily used to describe things that lots of other applications run on.

    I feel the Web OS terminology is being used by the media to hype up the conflict between Microsoft and Google, by somehow implying that they are directly competing in the operating system market. This is, of course, ridiculous and confuses things. The are certainly competing in the Office applications space. There is a Google OS as well- the Linux based one they run on their servers. Android is an OS as well.

    Stop using it- you’ll make more sense that way.