Tim O’Reilly puts Google’s Gmail in a wider context:
Gmail is fascinating to me as a watershed event in the evolution of the internet. In a brilliant Copernican stroke, gmail turns everything on its head, rejecting the personal computer as the center of the computing universe, instead recognizing that applications revolve around the network as the planets revolve around the Sun. But Google and gmail go even further, making the network itself disappear into the universal virtual computer, the internet as operating system.
I’ve been dreaming this dream for years. At my conference on peer-to-peer networking, web services, and distributed computation back in 2001, Clay Shirky, reflecting on “Lessons from Napster”, retold the old story about Thomas J. Watson, founder of the modern IBM. “I see no reason for more than five of these machines in the world,” Watson is reputed to have said. “We now know that he was wrong,” Clay went on. The audience laughed knowingly, thinking of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of computers deployed worldwide. But then Clay delivered his punch line: “We now know that he overstated the number by four.”
Pioneers like Google are remaking the computing industry before our eyes. Google of course isn’t one computer — it’s a hundred thousand computers, by report — but to the user, it appears as one. Our personal computers, our phones, and even our cars, increasingly need to be thought of as access and local storage devices. The services that matter are all going to run on the global virtual computer that the internet is becoming.
Until I heard about gmail, I was convinced that the future “internet operating system” would have the same characteristics as Linux and the Internet. That is, it would be a network-oriented operating system, consisting of what David Weinberger calls “small pieces loosely joined” (or more recently and more cogently, a “world of ends”). I saw this as an alternative to operating systems that work on the “one ring to rule them all principle” — a monolithic architecture where the application space is inextricably linked with the operating system control layers. But gmail, in some sense, shows us that once storage and bandwidth become cheap enough, a more tightly coupled, centralized architecture is a real alternative, even on the internet. (I have to confess that was one of the wake up calls to me in Rich Skrenta’s piece, linked to above.)
But in the end, I believe that the world we’re building is too complex for tight coupling to be the dominant paradigm. It will be a long time, if ever, before any one company is in control of enough programs and enough devices and enough data to start dictating to consumers and competitors what innovations will be allowed. We’re entering a period of renewed competition and innovation in the computer industy, a period that will utterly transform the technology world we know today.
I love Dave Stutz’s phrase, “software above the level of a single device.” We’re used to thinking of software as something that runs on the machine in front of us, its complex dance hidden by the blank metal and plastic of the hardware that houses it. But now, computers are everywhere, and each dance has many partners, a whirling exchange of data that will be made visible when and where we want it. It’s not the machine or even the software that matters, it’s the information and services that travel over the hardware and software “wires.” Gmail’s introduction of large amounts of free online storage for application data is an important next step in freeing us from the shackles of the desktop.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t important issues raised by the internet paradigm shift. The big question to me isn’t privacy, or control over software APIs, it’s who will own the data. What’s critical is that gmail makes a commitment to data migration capabilities, so the service isn’t a one way door to the future. I want to be able to switch to alternate providers if the competition makes a better offer. The critical enabler is going to be the ability to extract my data and connections so that I can work with them on multiple devices, for example, syncing my laptop or phone with my gmail account rather than having to work only in a tethered fashion. I understand why gmail doesn’t offer this feature now, but it’s going to be essential in the long term.