Many people think that the browser is starting to replace the operating system as the center of the personal computer.
Naturally, the view that Windows is on a path to irrelevance is not one generally espoused by Microsoft. That said, at least some inside Redmond's walls argue that the Web browser needs to start acting more like an operating system.
"Some of today's browser policies are not very safe," says Microsoft researcher Helen Wang.
Wang, who has been at Microsoft since getting her doctorate from University of California at Berkeley in 2001, argues that the Web browser should act as more than just a file clerk that rubber-stamps each request that comes its way. Rather, it should act more like a traffic cop, keeping things moving smoothly and ensuring that the computer's resources are fairly allocated.
In short, Wang says, the browser needs to act more like Windows does--making sure that different Web applications are protected from one another--even those running within the same site. So Wang and her team came up with a prototype, called Gazelle, that does just that.
Microsoft first outlined Gazelle earlier this year, but has only recently started to detail its thinking. Wang plans to present a paper on Gazelle at the Usenix security conference next month, and last week Microsoft posted an article on its Web site explaining more about Gazelle.
Wang isn't trying to suggest Windows is going away. Indeed, she says, Gazelle depends on Windows, acting merely as the middleman for Web pages seeking to access a computer's resources.
"We're really trying to leverage the decades of operating system experience and apply that in the Web and browser setting," Wang said.
Microsoft is also trying to be clear that Gazelle is not the immediate replacement for Internet Explorer, which has been losing share to rivals, including Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari. The company has yet to commit to commercializing Gazelle in any way, meaning it remains just one of scores of projects incubating inside the company's research labs.
Many outside Redmond, though, see the browser finally starting to take on the preeminence that many had assumed it might back in the early days of Netscape. Google's decision to offer Chrome, some think, was more about having an engine for running its Web applications than it was offering an alternative means for serving up traditional Web pages.
Modern browsers, Wang said, have taken a step in the right direction by isolating different browser tabs so that if one tab crashes, the whole browser doesn't get taken with it. Wang said that Chrome and Microsoft's IE 8 take steps toward increasing the reliability of Web browsing, but she argues far more drastic steps are needed.
"I think Gazelle marks a significant departure from all previous browsers, including Chrome and IE 8," Wang said.
For now, Gazelle is very much a prototype. It borrows much of its actual rendering technology from Internet Explorer itself. And although it can display 19 of Alexa's top 20 Web sites, there are still plenty of things it can't do. It also runs more slowly than Internet Explorer, particularly when opening new Web sites.
But Wang said it offers Microsoft--and the industry--a road map for how the Browser should evolve.
"I think this is the right way to go and I think this can be practical," Wang said. "It will also take a lot of work."