The Death of Windows
Step aside, bloated operating systems. The Web browser is coming to save the day.
Mozilla and Google are counting on changing the way you think. Sam Schillace, who developed the application that would become Google Docs, described the transition to me this way: Like many new technologies, Web-based office products went through an initial "dancing bear" phase, where novelty was the main attraction. Next, second-wave adopters came to the product because they have a specific need for its sharing tools, either because they want to collaborate or because of the ease of accessing a document from many different machines. The third wave, Schillace hopes, will eventually be drawn in by the product's austerity. In the programming world, this is known as the "worse is better" approach. It's not necessarily a bad thing that Google Docs will never have all the tools and gizmos that are built into Microsoft Word. That's because it's easier for a new technology to lure in skeptics if it's simple and straight-forward, even if that means sacrificing functionality.
Anyone who has skirmished with Word's animated assistant Clippy—may he rest in peace—has a horror story about battling Word's oft-unnecessary complexity. All in all, though, Word works pretty well, and getting people to stop using something they're satisfied with is never easy. Excel, too, is a masterful program, and one that far outshines any of the online wannabes featurewise.
It's worth remembering, too, that Windows is more than just an interface for running programs. It also manages your hardware—the hard drive and video card as well as peripherals like webcams and external memory devices. Even if Firefox or Chrome takes over application management someday soon, we'll still need something to handle all of that under-the-hood stuff. One intriguing option is a piece of software called HyperSpace that debuted in late 2007. HyperSpace is essentially a bare-bones OS that can fire up some of your computer's resources right when it boots, long before Windows has burped and sputtered awake from its coma. (The company that makes HyperSpace, Phoenix, is a major supplier of BIOS software, the code that runs immediately when you turn on your machine and takes attendance for all your hardware.) The current version of the product, which works on certain laptops—specifications here—loads in a few seconds and can get online, run Firefox, and boot a handful of other programs. These days, you can get a lot done with just that tiny amount of software. (If you're curious to try HyperSpace, you can demo it for free for 21 days. After that, running the software requires an annual fee.)
Pair a Web browser—which runs all your programs—and a lightweight OS—which fires up the browser—and you begin to see what a viable alternative to a Windows machine might look like. There's one piece left: Whichever browser you choose has to be able to handle all that activity. This is where Chrome starts to look prescient. As Slate's Farhad Manjoo has written, Google's browser handles the Web's whiz-bang programming with remarkable smoothness. Chrome may lack Firefox's library of add-ons, but it ensures that fancy Web applications are less likely to devour your computer's resources. It also does a creditable job of keeping single frozen Web pages from bringing down the whole application. (Imagine if every time Word crashed it brought all of Windows down with it—that's where most browsers are today.)
Chrome may command only 1.8 percent of the market, but it has already incited an arms race among competitors who realize that browsers must be stable for Web apps to take off. At this point, I would give up Word—and maybe even my beloved Excel—for a computer that boots instantly, lacks the headaches of Windows, and runs a reliable browser that houses serviceable alternatives to Office products. We're not there yet, and the transition will surely involve a pandemic of bugs and compatibility nightmares. And let's remember that Microsoft has killed off potential usurpers before. Nevertheless, I'm betting this would-be giant slayer has a fighting chance.
Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.