The Next Generation of Desktop OS is Here. It’s Your Browser.

Next Generation OS

For most people in the IT industry, it is rare that you come across something that has the potential to disrupt the status-quo. If you think back to the start of the ‘web-epoch’ there have been some reassuring constants: browsers, word-processors, spreadsheets, databases and of course operating systems. It is the latter I am going to focus on in this article – the operating systems’ role as an application platform has been slowly shifting to the browser. One of the latest tech developments – Progressive Web Applications (PWAs), aims to push the envelope even further.

The fundamental trigger for evolution (revolution?) is the cloud. I rarely keep critical files solely on my local machine and prefer to work directly on cloud-based documents. The fact that I can now do this and easily collaborate in real-time with my team members is also a function of the latest breed of rich web applications e.g. Microsoft Office 365.

What I didn’t realise until just recently is that these ‘rich’ applications are indeed PWAs and as direct result of this, their UIs are sophisticated, fast and behave like native applications.
PWAs are written once yet can be run within or outside of the browser, on just about any device and have a look/feel that makes it appear like a locally installed app. The critical difference is that there is no application to be deployed. Instead it is served via the network when used.

PWAs are actually everywhere – it’s just that most people don’t know they are using them already. For example, Google Maps, Spotify, Teams, Trivago and even Tinder are built as PWAs. In a piece of very unscientific testing, if you run any of these applications outside of the browser, they seem to be easier to use and faster in operation; for example, run google maps in a browser (Chrome or Edge) and then use the browser menu to create an application short-cut that runs maps in a separate window – amazing!

From a business standpoint, this approach will save significant IT resources and budget when building new multi-channel applications. Why build the app multiple times? Why build an application installer? Why physically deploy onto machines and then constantly maintain, upgrade and re-deploy? From an end-user perspective, usability improves at the same time as reducing the dependence on potentially old or ungoverned local applications.

Reassuringly, the push for PWAs is being bank-rolled by some of the world’s largest software vendors including Google, Microsoft. Their development plans are in the public domain – and the future looks very promising. Bit by bit more native application features are being added to help blur the distinction between native and web. In fact, given the familiarity of the browser UI, we see how the ‘operating system’ is becoming an irrelevant concept to many end-users. Sure, an Operating System is still there under the hoods, but the desktop experience is becoming simpler and that can only be a good thing.

Finally, in the world of large corporations, they have and will continue to have large estates of proprietary and bespoke native applications – but technologies like Glue42 will help support their incremental migration to the new world. Indeed, as you will soon find out at the end of this month, Glue42 has been designed to exploit PWAs in a most surprising way.

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James Wooster