Challenges For An Internet-Based Operating System

My article yesterday prompted excellent feedback. I’m lucky to count dozens of technology insiders among my readers.

What many pointed out is that an internet-based operating system would face major challenges, three of which were summed up well by a subscriber named Eric:

Moving critical functions online into the hands of a service provider (i.e. Yahoo or Google) would pose significant risks and the possibility of compromising data. People like to keep personal information private, and businesses rely on proprietary or sensitive information to give them an edge for success. Are people/businesses willing to put all this in the hands of Yahoo or Google? To me it doesn’t matter which company is providing the service, I would be very reluctant to entrust a third party with my information. By the same token, the services providers would be reluctant to take on the responsibility of data losses and spillages.

While broadband is becoming prevalent across the world, it’s not everywhere yet. I travel frequently for my job and have found the hotels, conventions, and local hotspots equipped with reliable internet connections. However, there have been times when I have been stranded without an internet connection due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Sometimes, things just don’t work (especially in less developed foreign countries). I can imagine being stuck in a situation where I cannot get to my files/data. The loss of productivity would be painful enough to pay whatever licensing fee for a standard desktop OS.

Nothing is free in this world. I find it hard to believe the OS service providers would be happy to build out million-dollar server farms and not charge a dime for using them. My assumption is that fees and charges will be factored in later as the concept/technology develops (perhaps after they claim their market share). Or advertisements will be plastered all over the desktop workspace. Both options I find very annoying.

While these are good points, I think what we’ll find is not an entirely online operating system, but downloadable parts of an operating system that rely on the internet to create much of the functionality we get from our hard drives now.

For instance, say we download a packet of files that is the core of Google OS. It has drivers to print documents, run peripheral devices, and put a graphical user interface on the screen. However, familiar tasks could be done with internet support instead of entirely from the hard drive.

If I double click a document icon, for instance, up pops a window with my document in it exactly as if I opened a Word document in Windows. Instead of being a Word window, however, it’s a Google Docs window. It doesn’t matter to me. I get my work done, save, and print if I need a hard copy.

If I want to browse my files, I open a file explorer equivalent to the familiar heirarchical folder representation. Depending on how I set up my options, when I click to open a folder I’m either viewing locally stored files or peeking into the folder where it’s stored online. Eric is right that we all have certain files that we don’t want to throw online no matter how safe we’re assured they’ll be. Those we place in folders that we specify to be saved on our hard drive only.

None of this is a stretch so far. Google Docs works right now, and we already specify private and shared folders for services such as Limewire. Other Limewire users can get to the files in my shared folder, but not the ones that are not shared. Similarly, I could store some files online in my own private directory but where I might be skeptical of their really being safe, and others in the directory on my hard drive.

Some say Linux is already doing this. They accuse me of calling for a revolution where there’s already been one. Well, the internet itself has been around since Sputnik, but according to Wikipedia, “the rapid growth of the internet was due primarily to the availability of commercial routers from companies such as Cisco Systems, Proteon and Juniper, the availability of commercial Ethernet equipment for local area networking and the widespread implementation of TCP/IP on the UNIX operating system.” All of that didn’t show up in meaningful quantities until the 1990s for your average end user.

Similarly, Linux may have been around for a while, but we have yet to see a tipping point where ordinary folks are using a freely downloaded operating system on their computers, and not caring what hardware they buy because the free OS runs on anything with a screen.

True, Linux is a free operating system alternative that anybody can download today, but just try setting it up on your personal computer. I have. It’s complicated. First of all, there’s no one place to get it. There’s not even a standard interface. You have to navigate your way through KDE, GNOME, and Xfce among others. IT professionals may consider Linux to be a viable option, but for the masses it’s strictly a concept for the time being.

It’s done a lot of way paving, though, if mostly in the realm of showing ordinary folks a different way of computing is possible. Here in Japan, many people are not even aware of the existence of an operating system, per se. I asked a woman if she liked Windows and she wondered what I meant. When I explained to her, she said she always thought that was just what computers were.

The company that finally shows people there are simple alternatives to Windows available to everybody for the first time because of the agnosticism of the internet, stands to make a mint. That’s what I was driving at yesterday. Apple has had a hard time of it until now because of compatibility issues, but those are disappearing, again courtesy of the internet.

As an aside, I think Apple will continue doing well precisely because more people can finally choose Mac over Windows. Both can get online, after all, and online is all that matters anymore.

I wrote in yesterday’s article, “Google Docs is already pretty far along toward replacing Office…” and people wrote to tell me that’s not true yet.

I’ll clarify. I didn’t mean GDocs has taken significant market share from Microsoft Office, I meant its capabilities are enough for most people. The majority of computer users never touches some 80% of the features in bloated office software. They just want to type a letter, paper, or other simple document and get page numbers in the right place. That describes most casual computer users and, for their purposes, GDocs is sufficient.

To experiment with that idea, I moved my business operation spanning two continents entirely to GDocs and Open Office last autumn, and it’s been fine. It’s been more than fine, in fact, it’s been great. No more emailing attachments back and forth. Revisions are automatically tracked. No need for backups.

My goal was to run my business in such a way that if my laptop were stolen at an airport, I could rush to the nearest internet-connected computer running any operating system and keep working. You know what? I can do that, thanks to GDocs, our online database server, internet mail, PayPal, online banking, and so on. Try that with hard-drive based Windows and Office.

Eric mentioned that not everywhere is connected. Conceded, but what operating system would not include some kind of basic text editor for typing data in raw form until getting to a connected computer that can put the data where it belongs?

Almost anywhere in the world, I have access to every one of my business documents in editable, trackable, printable form at
For free. Right now. No kidding.

Now, all of that said, there are some tasks that GDocs is not very good at handling yet, but it’s improving all the time. Moreover, the reasons we create documents is changing as much as the way we create them. I would submit that a significant percentage of the capabilities of software like Word is irrelevant in a world that is creating most of its content for online usage. Take this article, for instance. Did I care one second about pagination, margins, font size, columns, or any of that hard copy stuff? Nope, I typed it online and it stays online.

As we progress, more and more of what Microsoft has developed over the years doesn’t apply. It realizes this. That’s why it’s in a panic to buy its way to a longer future so it can figure out what to do when alternatives to its products are:

> designed better
> made by companies that are not out to stifle innovation
> and available for free

That last point is debatable, as Eric mentioned. Maybe internet-based operating systems will come with a fee at some point in the future. Maybe some will run ads. I would not like the latter. If the price was right, I would not object to the former.

To doubters, I offer one word: Firefox. It’s free and it runs no ads. It just runs circles around Internet Explorer. What if Mozilla, creator of Firefox, pulled the same trick with an operating system instead of a browser? What if they did it with Google’s help?

What if this isn’t a what if, but it’s actually happening the way it happened with Firefox?

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