The Guardian reports that Internet Explorer's share of the browser market fell for the first time since 1997. From 95% to 94%. It's unlikely Bill Gates is losing too much sleep at this point.
What may be keeping the folks at Redmond awake is the combination of factors that may make browsers the de facto operating and application systems of the future. Owning the dominant operating system for PC's has given Microsoft the whip hand in the first twenty years of personal computing. But what if the operating system ceases to matter much?
Gmail, the new Google email appliance, gives its users one gigabyte of storage space, more than they are likely to use for all their purely text email. Bought in bulk, hard drive space now costs literally pennies a gigabyte and the Adwords-driven revenue model -- which has been adapted to Gmail by targeting click through text ads on the basis of the contents of the email message -- is likely to cover the hard costs of the service. For the moment Gmail users cannot access that Gig directly, it is only for email.
Now, imagine that Google includes full featured word processing. (At the moment I can't even figure out how to do italics in Gmail; but that will certainly change.) And a printer interface. And a spreadsheet. And instant messaging. And a 5 Gig "working disk" which a user can "see" and use to store whatever data the user wants to. (Over at Google subsidiary Blogger.com, blogs have unlimited diskspace and a very reasonable word processor...hmmmm.)
Five years ago, while providing this sort of suite and storage would have been possible over the net, it would have been expensive and a bit pointless because the average connection speed topped out at 56K. Editing a letter would take forever. Now, with the relentless march of broadband, text and relatively small graphics can be accessed remotely without much lag.
It is not too difficult to imagine Google offering such a suite and giving users a remote virtual hard drive to store their material all as part of their Gmail service. It is also not difficult to imagine Google optimizing its offer for non-IE browsers. It would, of course, still work with IE.
In principle you would still have to have an operating system on your machine to keep your local drives and programs running; but that system would be increasingly irrelevant to the actual operation of your computer. Essentially you would turn your machine on, be connected to the net and use the Google provided programs throughout your working day. Running a word processor or speadsheet over the net does not, in fact require much bandwidth if the documents are actually stored at the remote location while they are being worked on.
A few years ago there was a fair bit of buzz about the "thin" or "light" client or dumb terminal. The thought was that consumers and companies could be spared the cost and complexity of full bore computers by reducing the home and office machines to not much more than a screen, a minimal operating system, internet browser and a bit of storage and a printer port. The heavy lifting would be done at the server end.
The dramatic drop in hardware costs has meant there is really no reason to create "light" clients. However, taking on the Redmond giant may well revive the concept of remote applications.
The key link, and one which is presently missing from the browsers that compete with IE, is the seamless integration of local and remote hard drives and the programs they contain. Essentially, for the remote application idea to work well, a browser would have to "see" all of the storage media to which a given computer has access and the programs stored on those drives.
Current browsers are built to "see" resources on the internet in terms of particular webpages; however there is no reason in principle that a browser cannot be set up with a "My Computer" function which will show all local disks and any remote "drives" to which the user has access. From there it is relatively straightforward to create desktop shortcuts to particular applications where ever they are located. (This is really no different than the configuration of a local area network.)
"Bill Gates and I agree," Sun Microsystems COO Jonathan Schwatz told Reuters, "that within four to five years hardware will be free." Hardware would be given away free in exchange for a commitment to use particular software which would cost something. However, matching the Adsense revenue model with a basic suite of programs would mean that the software was effectively free as well.
Ben Hammersley's Guardian article suggests this sort of remote computing would be fine for the routine tasks like word processing but would not be suited to graphics or video where files are large and processing requirements are significant. Likely he is right for the moment. However, while graphic designers will want their own high powered boxes, the rest of us who have simpler requirements, may well be able to use online services. If the advertising revenue model were used, the remote software would be effectively free, (imagine a company which offered to print photographs from digital files -- they would sure want to be on the page where you accessed Adobe Red Eye Corrector).
When browsers can see all of the resources a particular user has access to, highspeed, ad supported, web-based "appliances" can replace shrink wrapped programs. The sharp distinction between the Internet and "my computer" will be a lot fuzzier. Sleep will be scarce in Redmond.
Jay Currie is a Galiano writer. Find more of his writing at www.reviewing.blogspot.com.