With the release on Monday of a software platform known as Native Client, Google has moved even closer to fulfilling the early promise of a “web operating system” — a vision originally offered by browser-software pioneer Netscape Communications.
Over a decade ago, Netscape was the technology name that made users smile and competitors tremble. And one of the things that kept Microsoft awake at night was the fear that Marc Andreessen’s company might be able to turn the browser into a kind of web OS. Using a new software scripting language known as Java, the theory went, Netscape would be able to offer services and features through the web browser that would compete head on with software installed on PCs.
That fear was a big part of the impetus for Bill Gates’s famous “Internet tidal wave” memo in 1995, and it was also a big reason why Microsoft started pushing its own scripting language for the browser, known as ActiveX. As it turned out, Netscape was never able to follow through on the early promise of a browser OS. Not only was Java too clunky, insecure and ill-suited to the purpose, but Netscape never really took advantage of it, and the browser wars that Microsoft triggered with the release of Internet Explorer soon turned in the software giant’s favor, as Netscape became bloated and unfocused.
Now, Google is offering its own scripting language known as Native Client, which the company no doubt hopes will be seen by developers as a friendlier version of ActiveX. What it will allow browsers to do is run code in the language understood by a user’s PC, rather than having to translate everything on the fly. In a nutshell, that means browser-based software and services will run faster and be able to offer more functionality than they can now. Browser-based services that could replicate all of the features of a desktop application would become a reality.
As several observers have noted, the combination of Google’s new Chrome browser, its Gears software — which allows web apps to store data for offline use and synchronize it later — and the Native Client language makes for something that is awfully close to being a web OS. Applications and services could run on any computer, storing data whenever an Internet connection wasn’t available and effectively erasing the boundaries between desktop and web. And all it requires, of course, is that everyone adopt and adhere to Google’s new language and standard (both Microsoft and Adobe have been trying something similar with Silverlight and Flash/AIR).
Is the world ready for a Google-ized version of ActiveX? Perhaps not. But if the company does manage to get enough support for Native Client, the web OS could become a reality — and the knife that Google is already holding to Microsoft’s neck with its web apps could cut a little deeper.