TECH TALK: The Network Computer: The Internet OS

Tim OReilly discussed the idea of the Internet Operating System (built around open-source software):

The first generation of any new technology is typically seen as an extension to the previous generations. And so, through the 1990s, most people experienced the Internet as an extension or add-on to the personal computer. Email and web browsing were powerful add-ons, to be sure, and they gave added impetus to a personal computer industry that was running out of steam.

(Open source advocates can take ironic note of the fact that many of the most important features of Microsoft’s new operating system releases since Windows 95 have been designed to emulate Internet functionality originally created by open source developers.)

But now, we’re starting to see the shape of a very different future. Napster brought us peer-to-peer file sharing, Seti@home introduced millions of people to the idea of distributed computation, and now web services are starting to make even huge database-backed sites like Amazon or Google appear to act like components of an even larger system. Vendors such as IBM and HP bandy about terms like “computing on demand” and “pervasive computing”.

The boundaries between cell phones, wirelessly connected laptops, and even consumer devices like the iPod or TiVO, are all blurring. Each now gets a large part of its value from software that resides elsewhere. Dave Stutz characterizes this as software above the level of a single device.

I like to say that we’re entering the stage where we are going to treat the Internet as if it were a single virtual computer. To do that, we’ll need to create an Internet operating system.

The large question before us is this: What kind of operating system is it going to be? The lesson of Microsoft is that if you leverage insight into a new paradigm, you will find the secret that will give you control over the industry, the “one ring to rule them all”, so to speak. Contender after contender has set out to dethrone Microsoft and take that ring from them, only to fail. But the lesson of open source and the Internet is that we can build an operating system that is designed from the ground up as “small pieces loosely joined”, with an architecture that makes it easy for anyone to participate in building the value of the system.

Tim added recently: I’m talking about the emergence of what I’ve started to call Web 2.0, the internet as platform. We heard about that idea back in the late 90s, at the height of the browser wars, but that turned out to be a false alarm. But I believe we’re now starting the third age of the internet — the first being the telnet-era command line internet, the second the web — and the third, well, that tale grows in the telling. It’s about the way that open source and the open standards of the web are commoditizing many categories of infrastructure software, driving value instead to the data and business processes layered on top of (or within) that software; it’s about the way that web sites like eBay, Amazon, and Google are becoming platforms with rich add-on developer communities; it’s about the way that network effects and data, rather than software APIs, are the new tools of customer lock-in; it’s about the way that to be successful, software today needs to work above the level of a single device; it’s about the way that the Microsofts and Intels of tomorrow are once again going to blindside established players because all the rules of business are changing.

If there is one candidate to build the Internet OS, it is Google.

Tomorrow: Google OS/PC/Browser

TECH TALK The Network Computer+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.