Where's the Facebook Browser?

By Nick O'Neill Comment

Throughout the day I’ve been pondering the state of Facebook and how it functions as an operating system. Last night’s design change made me realize that Facebook is indeed trying to become the web OS but there is one problem with their system right now: how can a website be an operating system? The reality is that browsers are the future operating systems in a digital world which lives in the cloud.

This is why Google released Chrome and has standalone windows that are dedicated specifically to web-based applications that you leave running, such as Gmail. Just as you can build applications for Firefox, you can also build applications for Chrome. Just as the first iteration of the Facebook platform had the “Facebook chrome” surrounding all applications, so too will the Google Chrome browser surround all applications.

I’m assuming that’s why they called it “Chrome” in the first place. If Facebook is serious about building the leading web-based social operating system, they need to launch a browser. Some have suggested that Facebook acquire Flock and call it the Facebook browser but there is no sign that this is happening anytime soon. One interesting thing that crosses my mind in all of this rambling is that there are two separate paths that conflict further down the road: the browser-based OS and the web-based OS.

Web Based Operating Systems

Facebook appears to be building what is essentially an operating system within a browser. Imagine if the status bar on Facebook showed up not only on the Facebook website but anywhere you travelled on the web. This means that the majority of your Facebook activities could be accessed no matter where you were on the web. There’s a number of ways this could work.

One method is for Facebook to become a browser add-on. That doesn’t generate much traffic for their site though and currently Facebook continues to generate revenue from visitors that come to their site. Another way is to have all of the activities of Facebook users happen within their site. Great idea for Facebook but it pretty much doesn’t work for users.

While it’s great to dream of the day where we open up our computer and know that it’s only a terminal to my remote computer, we are at least a couple years away from this happening. This is also why Facebook would be so focused on optimizing their new site design. Even they know that launching a truly virtual web-based operating system to the world takes many phases.

Browser Based Operating Systems

The other way of building a remote operating system is via the browser. Google Chrome is one of the early attempts at accomplishing this challenge and Firefox has come extremely close. The benefit of browser based operating systems is that developers can build applications which integrate directly into the browser or what otherwise would be considered a formal operating system.

The theory goes that in the future we will not install applications directly on our local hard drive. Instead we will install these applications on a remote machine which will recall our settings no matter what terminal we log into. This makes the hardware an independent device which no longer has the same requirement of modern day personal computers.

I won’t get into the logistics of how this can and cannot work but let’s just say there are a lot of hurdles before we get to this point. In the meantime there are a few options and one of those is browser based computing. Imagine if all of your actions were taken within the web browser. For the most part, many of your activities are already taking place within a web browser but there are still some activities which don’t take place in your browser.

What activities do you engage in outside your browser? Here are the items I can come up with:

  • Development and general programming activities
  • Video editing
  • Design (web, print, etc)
  • FTP
  • Document management
  • Music
  • Contact and calendar management
  • Accounting
  • General operating system utilities
  • Chat
  • File sharing
  • General file management

These are just a few of them but many of the ones I’ve listed are already possible within a browser-based environment. The same goes for web-based systems but the browser provides many features that make these applications easier to build. Thanks to AJAX and a more robust javascript user interface libraries we can now build applications that are extremely to their desktop counterparts.

The browser is simply one place where your personal computing control panel can reside.

Lots of Rambling, What Matters?

So I’ve rambled on about the differences between browser and web-based operating systems. Ultimately there are people that are much more qualified to discuss this topic than I am. The key takeaway is that we are a few phases away from a cloud-based environment and the battle will be the browser operating systems versus the web-based operating systems.

I’m not sure which will win but Facebook would be smart to diversify their investments and build a browser. This hedges their risk and provides them with a solid shot at becoming the web operating system of the future. Do you think this analysis makes sense or am I waxing poetic about absolutely nothing?