Moving closer to the internet as an operating system

Feature

Moving closer to the internet as an operating system

The internet is arguably evolving as an operating system in its own right, with IP, HTML, SMTP and other underlying protocols combining with online application frameworks such as SOAP, web services, Ajax, Ruby on Rails and mash-ups. Added to this are remote web-based storage services, and increasingly sophisticated online applications. The result looks like an OS operating in the 'cloud'.

Commentators started to refer to the 'internet as an OS' around 1999, with the start-up WebOS Inc publicising the so-called web operating system.

In 2002, Tim O'Reilly wrote about "the emergent internet operating system" as an open collection of web services.

At the time, an O'Reilly Research report documented emerging technologies such as weblogs, instant messaging between people and programs, file sharing, grid computing and web spidering. It said these were the building blocks of the web OS.

Technology consultant Clay Shirky, who wrote the O'Reilly Research report, said the "transformation of the web services wilderness" had three stages. The first was the pioneer 'screen-scraping' stage. The second was where the websites themselves would offer more efficient, XML-based APIs - and this was starting to happen in 2002.

"In the third stage, the hodgepodge of individual services will be integrated into a true operating system layer, in which a single vendor, or a few competing vendors, will provide a comprehensive set of APIs that turns the internet into a huge collection of program-callable components, and integrates those components into applications that are used every day by non-technical people," predicted Shirky.

But back to the present, has the internet delivered on this vision, or is the success of large-scale distributed computing still at the mercy of web bottlenecks and protocol mismatches?

Jim Webber is global architecture lead for ThoughtWorks, and was formerly a senior researcher with the UK E-Science programme, where he developed strategies for aligning Grid computing with web services practices. He said that he was not convinced about the internet OS analogy.

"I can see a whole bunch of useful application protocols and infrastructure turning the internet into a useful piece of application middleware. But it may be a little bit of a stretch for now to call it an OS," he said.

"It's not so much internet-as-OS as I see it, but web-as-middleware. In that sense HTTP is the key piece in the whole puzzle, but the supporting infrastructure is web caching and the whole move is towards services being geared towards the web, rather than proprietary silos or impenetrable enterprise standards."

"The web is a distributed system, which means it's fallible in the same way as any other distributed system, said Webber. "It's latent, it's unreliable, and it's prone to partial failures. None of which applies to a traditional single-host operating system."

Andrew Overton is managing director of specialist consultancy Savantis, which uses open source tools such as Ruby on Rails. He also rejects the notion of the internet as an operating system and instead emphasises the connection between the internet and open source development.

"The phrase 'internet as an operating system' was coined by people who began viewing the OS as irrelevant, which it isn't. Although the web and browser enable you to access a lot of applications, you still need an operating system for all the everyday things such as file management, non-browser applications, and drivers for hardware - what you have in the operating system limits what you can do."

"Open source allows users to break free of certain boundaries and gives them scope for competitive advantage. Ultimately, it's the only reason that the internet could exist, as individual companies have historically fought to control whatever network sprung up through their own incompatible hardware and software."

"Whatever the big players tell you, the internet and open source software are yoked together.

They're dramatically accelerating the growth of each other but it's simply wrong to view them as a unified system."

But not all experts share this view, and many do believe that the internet's pervasive nature makes it akin to an OS.

Ben Jones, technology director at design agency AKQA, which produces digital campaigns for companies including Nike, Virgin, Coca-Cola and Fiat, said that the basic internet standards TCP/IP and HTTP have stood the test of time, and form the basic building blocks of the current wave of web innovation. Public APIs allow new web applications to be created by piecing together services from multiple sources.

"The net is gradually moving up the ladder - it's gone from providing basic infrastructure services (TCP/IP, HTTP) to more application-level solutions (Google Maps API), and now complete applications, in the same way that MS-DOS provided the basics for making a computer work, to Vista's integration of video editing tools, games etc," said Jones.

"This is allowing previously siloed applications, or organisations, to join forces to create something new."

However, he added that the internet also presents security and privacy risks to users, and this is where the model of the internet as an OS is flawed. As an OS, the web is simply not trustworthy, said Jones.

Mike Reid, UK managing director of Sapient Consulting agreed that the security of the internet is a concern for the company's corporate users, many of whom have corporate policies in place prohibiting the storage of files on third party storage - which includes web-based storage.

"In the future, internet providers will need to face the challenge of demonstrating their adherence to security standards, and their ability to guard the confidentiality of their customers' files. Internet pipes will also need to become fatter to allow for the high data transfers from people using the internet as a primary or secondary storage platform for their data," he said.

But he added that the foundations of an effective 'web OS' are already in place. "As more devices become available that allow access to the internet, it continues to become a computing solution that is 'always there'. Wireless technologies have helped to a great extent by making services widely available and affordable while the progression of virtualisation technologies has meant that service providers can make computing and storage solutions more cost-effective."

Online applications have evolved from a time when the web was primarily used for e-mail and chat to the point that application service providers are now providing web solutions that are part of companies' day-to-day operations, said Reid.

Several internet companies are making applications available over the internet - better still a lot of them are free - such as Google Docs - that allow you to create word documents, spreadsheets and presentations online, he added.

The result, said Reid, is that as more applications become available over the internet, desktops and laptops will continue to get thinner. "They will essentially turn into a network device with input and output functions, while the majority of the processing and storage will be happening remotely."

The emerging technologies that will help the internet to function well as an operating environment include AJAX, JavaScript and the Document Object Model (DOM), which make it possible to create complex web-based user interfaces, said Nick Mann, managing director of digital design agency Interdirect.

XML is also a vital component without which the ability to expose and transfer large bodies of data between heterogeneous systems would be very much harder, he said.

He also counted SOAP/Remote Procedure Call among his "star technologies" as these enable applications to be successful distributed across large arrays of servers, and interact with each other.

Mann said that one example of how far online applications have come is an online version of Photoshop, rendered in Flash - www.splashup.com.

Mann added, "Web 2.0 paradigms are good examples of the internet acting as an OS, for they enable vast numbers of geographically distant people to concurrently work together to produce a huge body of information. Wikipedia, Youtube and eBay are all fantastic examples of precisely this."

The future of the internet as an OS will see a closer merging of the boundaries between the web and the desktop, provided the security issue is resolved, said Mann. We will also see more web-based software, more web-accessing desktop software, and layout managers, like PageFlakes or iGoogle, becoming increasingly popular.

Interestingly, however, the web is also heading back to the desktop with products like Adobe Air (a rich internet desktop tool), Google Gears (an open source web application project) and Microsoft Silverlight (a cross-browser, cross-platform, rich media plug-in), said Mann.

One commentator, Graham Massey, chief technology officer of Accenture UK, said that the internet as an operating environment works well, and has had great success as an inter-network and distributed hyper text/media system.

But he did see some areas for progress and improvements.

Massey commented that its weaknesses tend to lie in areas such as web governance - particularly domain naming and registration which has been subject to outbreaks of rent-seeking behaviours and reform bottlenecks caused by differences in approach by consumers, commercial technologies and even governments.

Another area of weakness is the inconsistency of 'user experience,' said Massey, who added that this has been illustrated by net neutrality disputes and the P2P/ISP business model debates.

But Massey said that going forward, we will see further consolidation of web and web SOA/mashup approaches major investments in web storage, and continued refinements to unified communications.

It is clear that the internet has evolved into a highly sophisticated mechanism for delivering interactive web applications, and even for storing data and collaborating online. But as to whether it has delivered on the vision of becoming a fully fledged OS for a distributed computing system, the jury is still out.


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This was first published in May 2008

 

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