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Kottke the Quasi-Computer-Scientist

   23 August 2005, early evening

There are several things I find thoroughly suspect or outright stupid in Jason Kottke’s post on the WebOS. I’ll write a longer post later. I had to say something now, as I feel dirty reading all this quasi-computer-science. Briefly: Kottke describes at great length his vision of the “WebOS”, which requires another OS to run. Awesome.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Maybe he hasn’t posted about how his vision of a WebOS will run the file system, perform memory management, schedule tasks, handle network communication and perform a slew of other tasks that operating systems perform. Or, perhaps I am being totally fair, and Kottke doesn’t know much at all about what he is talking about.

The Web browser (along with other browser-ish applications like Konfabulator) becomes the primary application interface through which the user views content, performs services, and manages data on their local machine and on the Web, often without even knowing the difference. Something like Firefox, Safari, or IE…ideally browser agnostic.

Kottke talks at length about the WebOS, when what he is really describing is the top most layer we as users typically deal with when working with computers: shells or window managers.

You don’t need to be on a specific machine with a specific OS…you just need a browser + local Web server to access your favorite data and apps.

If you think what Kottke describes is revolutionary, than you will definitely want to read all about XUL. What Kottke calls the WebOS is already here. Or, if you want to be a little bit boring, Sun already invented the WebOS, only they called in Java.

I wonder how Kottke expects his web server and browser to run. Magic? If you still need an OS, what is the point? This doesn’t shake things up for anyone—least of all Microsoft.

update: I was going to write more about this, but the comments are already full of interesting stuff. I may write about this topic another day, only next time i’ll be a little bit less snarky. Just a bit.

update: I’ve written a bit more about this topic: Open Standards are the Future.



  1. You will find the essence of the post in a quote of his:

    because I want all the credit for guessing this before it happens.

    Of course everybody who knows his history 101, knows that history repeats itself and that many ideas get recycled and sold as revolutionary in regular intervalls.

    And some bloggers are always rushing to be in the front of the wagon, trying to be the one that coined the new term the other people will use. Personally I think the latest peak was the branding done with the term “AJAX”.

    So let’s give kudos to Kottke for re-discovering cross-platform applications that gasp connect to the net and labeling it with the innovative, totally unexpexted and precise technical term “WebOS”. Ok, it’s neither of those, but it’s marketable, and that’s what counts. Let’s party like it’s 1999. Woohoo!

  2. Glad to know I’m not the only one who finds the post muddled and obnoxious. If people start calling Flickr an application written for the WebOS I am going to vomit. Literally.

    Anyway, my plan is to clean up what I’ve written here, since it is probably just as muddled as what Kottke wrote.

  3. I’m obviously not talking about an operating system as defined by a computer scientist. Also, many modern “operating systems” are much more than a strict definition of the term. OS X certainly doesn’t require an entire DVD-worth of code just to handle I/O, memory allocation, and whatnot. WebOS is just a convenient term (that was used by other people way before I used it) to use in talking about it.

    Also, not claiming that this is a revolutionary or even new idea (aside from the purposely hyperbolic alternate headlines). It’s just how I see things playing out, that’s all. Did you even read any of the links I pointed to? People have been talking about the Web as a platform for years, this is just a little twist.

    Now, muddled, that’s something I can agree with. But it’s not a pitch to a VC or , so who cares? It’s just a blog post.

  4. Briefly: Kottke describes at great length his vision of the “WebOS”, which requires another OS to run. Awesome.

    I think that basically sums it up. Given that some tasks such as email, photos etc are better as a web app but imagine word processing, graphics design etc done from a limited UI such as a browser. The problem with this scenario is that we are talking about replacing one well functioning paradigm (system os) with another (web os). Why not just leverage the best parts of both?

    And with browser support the way it is, it would be “write once, patch everywhere”.

  5. Hi Jason,

    I’m obviously not talking about an operating system as defined by a computer scientist. People have been talking about the Web as a platform for years, this is just a little twist.

    Why call it (web-)OS, instead of continuing to call it platform then? Is it really a gain to push those nonsensical word violations?

    If so, I will start to refer to It as the webDNA from now on, because web-stuff is, like, recombining itself and mutating into new web-stuff that is more adapted and things. Survival of the fittest and all. WebDNA!

    No doubt tomorrow someone will come around and claim that the web is actually the result of Intelligent Design – of course nobody will take that ludicrous idea for real. ;)

  6. Jason, I have read most of the links in your article before; the Paul Graham article being the most interesting of the bunch. I’ve also read your previous posts on your vision of the Google OS, so I’m no stranger to this discussion. As I mentioned above, inbetween snarky comments about operating systems, I realise what you are talking about is the top most layer people deal with when working with computers. When I complain about your use (and the use of others) of the term WebOS, i’m not just trying to be pedantic. Calling it a WebOS is misleading and confusing. What you describe has little at all to do with MacOS, Windows, System V, BSD, etc. You aren’t talking about a WebOS at all.

    I think Sunny’s point is the most valid. The future isn’t going to be Photoshop served up to me from Adobe.com. That makes no sense when computing power, disk storage, and memory are all getting cheaper. Applications like iCal, Mail, iPhoto, work well as web based apps. Applications that one would normally build with something like PowerBuilder, things that read and write data to a database, also work well as web applications. But there are countless applications that just don’t make much sense being run inside or as a series of web pages.

    This post wasn’t meant as a fuck-you or anything; I just find the whole WebOS thing annoying, I read your site religiously, and you happened to post about it in some detail. If someone at one of the other sites I read frequently wrote a similar article, I’d be bitching about their post instead. After your post about the present future I would expect you to have shied away from such an obviously hype filled discussion.

    Anyway, I think the fact that you can write about your opinions on the future of the web in New York and get bitched to about it by people in Canada, Germany, and Australia is something that is actually revolutionary. Glad to know you’re listening.

  7. A key feature that Kottke highlights is the need for the WebOS to work offline.

    I think this will be one aspect that will increasingly become irrelevant as always-connected broadband and GPRS connections come to dominate.

  8. I think one of the reasons he wanted an offline component was to avoid frequently accessing the network, as information on your own computer can be accessed faster. I would agree that the world is only getting more connected, and one can assume that in the not to distant future you will be able to surf on the Internet anywhere you want.

  9. maybe 802 or “WiMAX” or something. Believe me, a GPRS connection is nice in a pinch but it’s not really for web-anything. I often grab a few minutes of EDGE connectivity and it’s incredibly slow for web access. Not to mention that right now Rogers is charging $10/MB; I agree the cost will decrease over time, but by the time it’s at all affordable, people will be on to UMTS/etc..

    web access is typically sporadic and bursty…and it’s like 2000ms to ping yourself starting from GPRS Standby. That gets frustrating.

  10. [ed. I erased my own comment! Follow your own rules Ram.]

  11. I think the details are murky, but this vision has a point.

  12. This post takes the cake.

  13. Yeah, I actually erased my comment about that post. If you read his previous comment in this thread, I would hope the comment in that link was pure sarcasm.

  14. I find it hilarious that people are trying to take credit for predicting the future when visionaries like WebOS.com created this WebOS meme back in 1999.How can anyone who knows anything forget about the original WebOS.com guys? Shervin Pishevar, Drew Morris, Fredrik Malmer and Erik Arvidsson at WebOS were the pioneers of the WebOS space way back in 1999 and 2000. Unfortunately, they had idiotic investors who had no idea what they were sitting on. WebOS was the first AJAXian API complete with an app they called “Maggie” that created a true desktop-like application (it was their Hyperoffice product done just look outlook but through the browser only in DHTML/JS with the WebOS API). This was years before OddPost. They also had the first desktop evironment complete with windowing capabilities. Rumours are some of the old gang are planning a WebOS-reloaded and relaunching WebOS.com. Should be interesting to see what comes out.

    Also, I agree with you. A true visionary would create a WebOS that actually is an OS-made to run the local machine in an optimized way for web applications and the Web 3.0 world we are living in now and will increasingly live in the future.

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