Here comes the Internet OS (finally!)

It was recently announced that later this year the popular alternative web browser Firefox will include support for using web-based applications on your computer’s desktop.

This is landmark news.

Once Firefox bridges the chasm between the internet and your desktop it’s going to validate the so-called “Web 2.0” platform as a viable way to work on a computer and the “Internet OS” revolution will at last be in full swing.

Traditionally, we’ve worked with files on computers locally, either on our own desktop or a local server in our office or home. Most software is designed for individual use, with collaborative tools sort of hammered on after the fact. This makes working with other people on a document quite difficult, as most of us are painfully aware.

Conversely, software that’s designed for web use, such as Google Docs and Zoho Virtual Office, is designed from the ground up for developing spreadsheets and word processing documents in a group setting. Both of these suites offer tools very similar to Microsoft Office, but you use them in a web browser (and they’re generally free).

Because they’re designed for group work, web-based applications handle collaborative matters such as revision management elegantly.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to use Google Docs with colleagues. I’ve purposely logged into a word processing document when I knew someone else was editing it and tried to screw things up, but couldn’t. Google Docs handled both of our edits and managed a clear revision trail for our review and fallback, if required.

Unless you’re working collaboratively on documents, however, there’s little benefit to web-based applications. This is mainly because these web-based applications haven’t reached the level of maturity that desktop applications like Word and Excel have.

Common keystrokes don’t work properly in a web environment, and the overall look and feel is clumsy. Web-based applications generally don’t respond as quickly as desktop applications and they’re limited by the web browser environment in terms of how you can interact with them.

Of course, the biggest drawback of all to web-based apps is obvious: how do you work without internet access? If you’re a Gmail user and have ever wanted to read your email while on a plane, you know the answer to this question.

If what the Firefox team is promising actually comes to fruition, however, they’ll have solved this problem.

With the next major release, Firefox will become something more than a web browser: it will evolve into an application platform. So if you’re a frequent flier who depends on Gmail to stay in the loop, you’ll be able to browse your received email and compose messages while en route (you still won’t be able to send those messages or check for new ones until you land, however).

Firefox will also handle more articulate messaging environments, like Zimbra, without internet access, and aims to support web-based word processors and spreadsheet applications in the not-too-distant future.

This is all exciting stuff. It not only means that you don’t need to be online to work with web apps, it also means that you won’t be dependent on a particular computing platform. Firefox runs equally well on Mac, Windows, and Linux. That means these web-based application will do likewise.

Firefox, in other words, is a threat to the current generation of established operating systems like Windows and Mac OS X. Furthermore, it threatens traditional software publishers like Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe.

Canadian-based Corel realizes this and has already developed a web-application friendly version of WordPerfect, called Lightning. The others seem to be taking their time, however.

I would guess that to battle the threat of Firefox we’ll soon find traditional operating systems becoming more open to integrating the operational principles of web-based applications right into the desktop. After all, there is no reason for a web application to operate only in a web browser. If an operating system, as a whole, becomes enabled with integrated web-access capabilities, then the traditional web browser, like Firefox, becomes redundant.

Somewhat ironically, Microsoft was severely punished for this purview years ago when they tried to make their Internet Explorer web browser an integral part of Windows 95. This may have been the only period in their history when they were a company ahead of their time, and it hurt them bad. Unfortunately, that’s probably going to make it that much harder for them to evolve their platform to the next era of computing.

I look forward to Firefox 3.0 which should hit the scene as summer ends. Its release will represent a revolutionary change in the direction of computing and will set off an intense time of disruptive growth that will shake down the industry as never before. It’ll be fun.