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The browser is the OS

While economic crisis looms in Asia, we in the United States have far more pressing issues. We are trying to decide if Microsoft's browser is a part of the Windows operating system.

And we'll bask in the shadow of yesterday's triumph...
--"Shine On You Crazy Diamond," Pink Floyd

One of the most critical aspects of any product or service is the user interface (UI), that point where user and usee connect.

Whether you're designing washing machines, VCRs, or software, a product's success depends heavily on whether it's easy to use. As the Internet emerges from adolescence, we can observe that some very smart people made some very simple, but critical, UI decisions that have led to resounding success. However, most developers have failed to deliver the optimal UI for the Internet. The good news is the game is far from over.

While economic crisis looms large in Asia, and Iraq's president Saddam Hussein plays chicken with the United Nations in the Middle East, we in the United States have far more pressing issues. We are trying to decide whether Microsoft's browser is a part of the Windows operating system.

The Justice Department is accusing Microsoft of using Windows' monopoly position to force its browser onto the public, willing or not. Microsoft insists there is no clear line between browser and operating system.

To illustrate its point, Microsoft stooped so low as to demand that a government witness identify all the ".DLL" files associated with Internet Explorer. All this exercise proved was that the witness was not superhuman. Not a single Microsoft employee could state from memory all of the files associated with Microsoft Word, yet we all accept Word as an application distinct from the OS.

The whole argument between the Justice Department and Microsoft hinges on the belief that they who control the operating system also exercise a lot of control over applications. But that's just not so any more. In this regard, the browser already is the operating system.

Of course, you still need Windows or the Mac OS to run your computer. Without an OS you can't open a file, print a document, or even run a browser. However, the operating system no longer dictates how programmers write applications. About 95 percent of the small new companies that Hummer Winblad considers investing in use the browser, not Windows or any other operating system, as the foundation for their applications. Make no mistake about it: Developer support has been the unquestionable key to success in the operating system game. This is the main reason Microsoft was threatened by Netscape in the first place.

There are clear-cut advantages to using the browser as a front end for software applications, though this is certainly not a revolutionary idea. Most application companies recognize that applications are much cheaper to deploy and maintain if the only step necessary for an employee to use an application is to click on a URL in a browser.

The UI is sucked through the network and displayed on the screen while the majority of the application actually resides on the server. This way, support staff need not visit every desk each time software is changed. You simply change the code on the server and, since everyone is relying on the same server software, the client's UI automatically supports the new features. This is far superior to yesterday's world, where an application upgrade would automatically result in hundreds of hours of support work. The kicker is that, because everyone's data is stored centrally, higher-end features like collaboration and reporting are a breeze.

That's the good news.

Clearly, the majority of application developers, game developers, and even content-focused Web developers recognize that the browser is the ideal user interface. However, very few of them have taken the time to ask if developing for the browser as a user interface might be different from developing for the stand-alone desktop operating system. Most of these developers have simply applied the paradigms of the past, rather than take the time to ponder whether the rules and assumptions are still valid. However, not all the old rules apply, and in fact, there are a few new ones.

J. William Gurley 1997-8. All rights reserved. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable but is not necessarily complete, and its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Any opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice. The author is a general partner of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners (HWVP). HWVP and its affiliated companies and/or individuals may, from time to time, have positions in the securities discussed herein. Above the Crowd is a monthly feature focusing on the evolution and economics of high technology business and strategy.