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Cisco's IOS vs. my vision of an Internet Operating System

by Tim O'Reilly
Jan. 4, 2004

Robbie Allen sent me the following email, which he gave me permission to quote:

I've been keeping up with many of your recent posts on the "Internet Operating System". In the late 90's, I started to formulate some related ideas. I was working in Cisco's IT department deploying various services (DNS, DHCP, LDAP, etc.) and writing web-based apps to manage them (mainly in Perl). At Cisco, we like to put everything on the web. I started to think that at some point, the only software you would need to install is a web browser and you would access applications by intuitive URLs. So to access the corporate directory, you would go to http://directory, or to access our DNS Management app, you would go to http://dns, or to access our mailing list application, you'd go to http://mailer, or to install software, you'd go to http://software. You get the picture.

In this sense, the browser functions as the interface for all network applications. The browser bookmarks could serve the same function as Start -> Programs. I think the need to write standalone (non-browser based) GUIs will slowly diminish over time especially as traditional client-side apps open up and start using XML and the rendering capabilities of browsers increase. This is already starting to happen with some MS Office apps. In the case of Outlook 2003, you get an almost identical user experience with Outlook Web Access 2003.

P.S. While I agree that the term "Internet Operating System" does a good job of conveying your sentiments, I think you might run into some protests if you really start to evangelize it due to Cisco's (my employer) use of that term. And since what you are talking about isn't really an operating system (until the browser becomes the OS), perhaps "Internet Application System" or "Internet Application Platform" would be more appropriate? Just a thought.

I think Robbie's comments are right-on. The web, and particularly the implicit or explicit naming schemes associated with URLs, can provide a unified view of services, and not just web pages. (This is also what Netscape was evangelizing as the "webtop" back in 1997.) I also agree that web versions of desktop applications are increasingly mirroring the originals. What's more, client-side technologies like Flash make possible what Macromedia calls Rich Internet Applications that have much more responsive interfaces than browser-only applications.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The real reason I use the term "internet operating system" (see my archive site for instances) is because we're seeing new network-based services that go beyond both the web and the traditional desktop application. P2P file sharing, distributed computation, location services, search, identity management...the list goes on and on. And what is an operating system but a software layer for managing access to services and devices? I'm sorry that Cisco has tried to trademark the term, but it's merely descriptive. Cisco's IOS is really closer to a BIOS layer than it is to a complete internet operating system.

What's more, while what I'm talking about is certainly an "internet application platform"--that is, a platform for purely internet based applications--it's also a set of services that will feed in to traditional applications as well. As I noted in my keynote at the O'Reilly Mac OS X conference, iTunes is a good example of the new paradigm. It helps a user to manage a local data store, but look how much outreach there is into network functionality:

I love David Stutz's phrase for all of this: "software above the level of a single device." Right now, everyone is writing this kind of software as a kind of one-off. The real paradigm shift will come when services are standardized sufficiently that their existence can be reliably assumed by developers. My contention is that this platform can be amalgamated from multiple sources, in the way that a linux distribution is amalgamated, rather than created whole cloth by a single vendor. However, I don't think that this is a foregone conclusion. In fact, the biggest single strategic question for enterprise software vendors today is who will control this new platform -- whether it will be a single vendor who grasps the opportunity to provide a unifying layer, or whether it will be an internet-style system based on open standards.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc. Considered by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world, O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, Strata: The Business of Data, the Velocity Conference on Web Performance and Operations, and many others. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim is also a partner at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, O'Reilly's early stage venture firm, and is on the board of Safari Books Online, PeerJ, Code for America, and Maker Media, which was recently spun out from O'Reilly Media. Maker Media's Maker Faire has been compared to the West Coast Computer Faire, which launched the personal computer revolution.

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