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The Internet Operating System

28 Nov 2012

This is my editorial from the Winter 2012 issue of HardCopy magazine:

INGG0209Cast your mind back to 1995. Microsoft was well established, with either MS-DOS or Windows running on over 90 percent of desktop computers. However Bill Gates was beginning to worry about a new phenomena: the World Wide Web, which had been invented a few years previously.

In particular, he was worried by what a young man named Marc Andreessen was saying about his operating system. Andreessen was responsible for Netscape Navigator, the Web browser that was spreading like wildfire across his desktops, and Andreessen was starting to talk about something called the Internet Operating System: an environment in which Netscape Navigator became the user interface, giving access to applications that ran remotely across the Internet. Navigator was available not only for Windows but also for the Apple Macintosh and even for UNIX. In such a scenario, Windows became little more than a “poorly debugged set of device drivers.”

Other companies that had a bone to pick with Microsoft rallied to the call. Sun Microsystems had developed Java, which Netscape licensed so that its browser could run programs written in Java. Oracle supported the idea because its server technologies could help deliver the applications, and started talking about a Network Computer that would give users all they needed to access applications across the Internet – and that did not include Windows.

A few implementations did appear, including the Acorn Network Computer and the Sun JavaStation. However the intiative died a fairly swift death. The Internet was simply not fast enough and the hardware was too expensive for it to succeed.

But fast-forward to the present day and the concept makes more sense, and indeed is in the ascendant. Its most faithful manifestations are to be found in the cloud-hosted applications that we interact with through the browser, such as Office Web Apps or Google Docs. Then there are the ‘apps’ that we find in iOS, Android, Windows Phone and now Windows 8. These have a similar architecture to those of Java, although I imagine that Andreessen would have been dismayed by their platform dependence and mutual incompatibility.

An integral part of this new Internet Operating System is the cloud architecture, and the emerging realisation that it defines an architecture, rather than a location. It’s strength lies in its ability to operate out in the ‘public cloud’, but it also makes sense when applied in-house, and even more so in a hybrid architecture that allows any component to move seamlessly from location to location.

An important strength of such an architecture is its implications with regards to privacy and security. Company data and bespoke applications are core business assets, and many are unhappy at the prospect of hosting them outside the firewall. Adopting a cloud-based architecture means that discussions about their location can revolve around business considerations, rather than technical issues.

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