in Technology

The web is the platform (or, the perils of esoteric setups)

At Mozilla we say that “the web is the platform”. It’s almost like a mantra. By that we mean that, as the world’s largest public resource, the web is big enough, fast enough, and open enough for everyone to use on a full-time basis.

To prove this, we made FirefoxOS, a mobile operating system comprised entirely of web-native technologies. But FirefoxOS devices aren’t the only ones that lean heavily on the web for their functionality. Google Chromebooks have a stripped-down version of Linux that boots directly into Google’s Chrome web browser.

The meme over the last few years seems to have been that Chromebooks (and by extension, I guess, FirefoxOS devices) are for other people – you know, the type that “just do a little bit of web browsing here and there.” They’re not for us power users.

Here, for example, is Andrew Cunningham from Ars Technica talking about covering CES 2014 on a Chromebook:

Even if you can do everything you need to be able to do on a Chromebook, switching from any operating system to any other operating system is going to cause some friction. I use OS X to get most of my work done because it’s got a bunch of built-in features and applications that I like. I use Full Screen Mode to keep my laptop’s display organized and uncluttered. I like Limechat because it’s got a bunch of preferences and settings that lets me change the way it looks and works. I like Messages because it lets me connect to our XMPP server and Google Talk and iMessage, all within one client.

That’s what bothers me the most about Chrome OS. It’s not that you can’t do a lot with a Chromebook. It’s not even about getting used to different tools. It’s just that the operating system works so differently from established desktop operating systems that you’ll have to alter many of your normal workflows. No one’s saying it’s impossible to do, but for people used to something else it can be a laborious process.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with native apps. I really like Scrivener, Notational Velocity, and others. But unless you’ve got unusual requirements I reckon that in 2014 you should have a workflow that can use the web as the platform. In other words, being away from your own machine and ‘perfect setup’ shouldn’t dent your productivity too much.

One blocker to all this, of course, is other people. For example, it’s very difficult to move away from using Skype (which doesn’t have a web client) because it’s the de facto standard for business VoIP communication. That is only likely to change when there’s a critical mass of people familiar enough with different technologies to be able to switch to them quickly and easily. Hopefully WebRTC will expedite this process!

So, in conclusion, if you’ve got a workflow that depends upon a particular native app, perhaps it’s time to look for an alternative?* Then, at the minimum you’ve got that alternative up your sleeve in a pinch, and at best you may find you want to switch to it full time.**

 Image CC BY Robert S. Donovan

*For example, I’ve recently moved from Evernote to Simplenote and from Adium to IRCcloud.

**If you want to simultaneously focus on privacy/security, look at the newly-revamped PRISM Break site.

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  1. Hi Doug,

    I have been trying to minimize dependencies on traditional native apps and move my workflows to HTML5 / cloud apps. I do use a Chromebox as my primary desktop at work. That’s not to say that I can do all my work on a ChromeOS device. Far from it. While I can do a lot of work-related tasks on a ChromeOS device, I still need a traditional OS and windows apps. Luckily my workplace provides VMware Hosted Virtual Desktops which I can easily access from ChromeOS. This setup allows me to use ChromeOS as my primary computer and have access to a Windows hosted virtual machine when needed. So ChromeOS works nicely in enterprise if you can pair it with a traditional OS (virtual or physical) :)

    Saqib

      • Let’s not forget offline access :)

        While broadband is important, offline access is even more important for a successful transition to web-based apps. Google is doing a good job with offline access with Google Docs and Google Mail. But they can do better. They recently added offline support for Google Spreadsheets. Microsoft needs to work on pure HTML 5 offline capabilities for Office Web Apps. I love Microsoft Office Web Apps, but I can’t and won’t start using it till they provide pure browser based HTML5 offline access to those apps.