Is There an “Internet Operating System?”

When Tim O’Reilly talks about something technology or web-related, plenty of people listen. After all, he not only runs a media company that publishes authoritative books on technology, he runs conferences about the issues that arise out of technology’s impact on business and society, and he helped popularize the term “Web 2.0,” among other things (although some people would rather he hadn’t). So it’s worth taking some time to look at what O’Reilly said recently about “The State of the Internet Operating System.” In that post, O’Reilly looks at the various parts that make up what he believes to be an operating system for the Internet era.

The idea:

As O’Reilly notes at the beginning of his post, this isn’t the first time he has raised the idea of an Internet Operating System. The first time in print appears to have been 2002, although the author and publisher admits that he forgot to hit the publish button and didn’t wind up actually posting it until 2004. Among other recent discussions of the topic, O’Reilly did a presentation called “The State of the Internet Operating System” in November of last year:

O’Reilly isn’t the only one to bring up the idea, either, or to use the term. Cisco (S csco) has a whole product line of networking software called Internet Operating System (which O’Reilly responded to in a post in 2004). Jon Udell wrote about the idea in 2008. Google (S goog) was widely believed to be developing one in 2005, according to Search Engine Roundtable. Former BitTorrent developer Krzysztof Kowalczyk called the Google Apps Engine an Internet operating system. And Jolicloud calls itself an Internet Operating System and explicitly references O’Reilly’s piece from 2004 in its mission statement.

The post:

Getting back to the post: It’s pretty long (about 5,400 words) so here’s a quick overview: in O’Reilly’s view, the way that various pieces of the web function together — Google search, cloud computing services, GPS location-based services, mobile browsers, etc. — is a bit like the way that the various pieces of a computer function.

On a standalone computer, operating systems like Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux manage the machine’s resources, making it possible for applications to focus on the job they do for the user. But many of the activities that are most important to us today take place in a mysterious space between individual machines.

So is there an operating system out in that mysterious space? Well, not really. Even O’Reilly admits that there isn’t anything really OS like — but he thinks there is something emerging that serves a similar function. And he admits that Google search and other services feel more like applications (in other words, like software that runs on a computer), although they run on a massive computing cluster. But is there any purpose in thinking of the Internet as having an operating system? That’s not really clear.

Where is the “operating system” in all this? Clearly, it is still evolving. Applications use a hodgepodge of services from multiple different providers to get the information they need. But how different is this from PC application development in the early 1980s, when every application provider wrote their own device drivers to support the hodgepodge of disks, ports, keyboards, and screens that comprised the still emerging personal computer ecosystem?

The future:

At this point, O’Reilly agrees that there may not actually be an Internet operating system. “Never mind the technical details of whether the Internet really has an operating system or not,” he says. So what is the point of the metaphor then? One of O’Reilly’s main issues seems to be that he is afraid society is facing a choice between managing the complexity that is out there and opting for an overly simplified solution, in the same way the early world of computing turned into a Windows (s msft) monopoly (my comparison, not his). Which raises the question: Is O’Reilly too caught up in the battles of the past, and trying to impose that same perspective on the Internet?

This is the crux of my argument about the internet operating system. We are once again approaching the point at which the Faustian bargain will be made: simply use our facilities, and the complexity will go away. And much as happened during the 1980s, there is more than one company making that promise.

The rest of O’Reilly’s piece is a discussion of what subsystems the Internet Operating System is made up of — in other words, what the disk drives and memory and processors and displays and peripherals are. O’Reilly lays out several broad categories, including:

  • Search: “Because the volume of data to be managed is so large, because it is constantly changing, and because it is distributed across millions of networked systems, search proved to be the first great challenge of the Internet OS era.”
  • Identity: “When you use Facebook Connect to log into another application… that application is using Facebook as a “subsystem” of the new Internet OS.”
  • Location: “Location is the sine-qua-non of mobile apps. When your phone knows where you are, it can find your friends, find services nearby, and even better authenticate a transaction.”
  • Time: Real time “emphasizes just how much the future will belong to those who measure response time in milliseconds, or even microseconds, rather than seconds, hours, or days.”

O’Reilly also describes what he sees as the potential future of the browser:

Might an operating system of the future manage when and how data is collected about individuals, what applications can access it, and how they might use it? Might it not automatically synchronize data between devices and applications? … Might it not perform credit checks before issuing payments and suspend activity for those who violate terms of service?

The bottom line:

So is there an Internet Operating System? Maybe — although there’s just as much reason to believe that TCP/IP, the networking standard that underlies the Internet, is pretty close to an operating system (albeit a DOS-like one), in the sense that it makes the various parts of the web and the services we use work together, and the other things that O’Reilly is talking about are services that function on top of that. Maybe a better term would be “ecosystem,” since that’s a less technical metaphor, and doesn’t have the same baggage as the term operating system. Let’s give the last word to a Slashdot commenter: “The internet has an operating system just as much as a colony of ants has a hive mind. They don’t, but they sure act like they do.”

Whether there’s an Internet OS or not, O’Reilly’s larger point seems to be that the pieces of the social Web, cloud OS services, GPS location and all of those other things are worth thinking about as a cohesive whole, and that we should consider how to make them function better, and what kinds of features we want them to have going forward. And that’s a point worth making, regardless of what we choose to call the thing we are all building.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Stefan