The web browser was never invented to run apps — it was meant to render the web of HTML pages interspersed with images and other multimedia. It worked so well for the web that we hacked it to serve our apps.
Why did the Apps in the Browser Succeed?
If you go back in time, to the late 90’s and early 00’s, the operating system of choice at work was Microsoft Windows. Windows was not a very well designed OS when it comes to security and stability. Installing one app could open the possibility for security holes and for one app to hurt the performance of other apps- remember the corrupt registry problem?
CIO kills the Native Apps — Microsoft helps
The CIOs who run our computers at most workplaces responded to the various challenges by essentially locking down our computers. We could not install any apps as end users because we were not given the permission to do so by the CIO. This facility — the ability to remotely control and manage our computers — was a key selling point for the Windows platform.
Essentially, the apps we could access on our computers were the ones built by the likes of Microsoft (Excel, Word, Outlook, Powerpoint), a few large software companies like Oracle & SAP, and 3–5 apps the CIO built. That was the computer. You as a user had NO CHOICE.
In theory, you could install other apps by following the company processes — go buy app, get CIO to approve the purchase, get CIO to test the app, and then isntall it. It was just too difficult.
Unlocking the locked PC
If you were an employee at a company and wanted to use a new piece of software it was nearly impossible to get access to it on your PC laptop. This, by the way, was equally true for Mac or Unix systems which were locked down.
Nature Abhors an App Vacuum
However, we still had a lot of tasks that were not yet automated like customer relationship management (CRM) for which we as end users wanted to try out new software and were often willing to pay for it, albeit in small dollar amounts. Similarly, the users could imagine better versions of tools they were using or being forced to use at work.
The software vendors were suffering too. They had to go through the CIO to sell every new app to the end user or a department. What if we could bypass this CIO?
SaaS is the Market Response to the PC Lockdown
At the same time, as our PCs were getting locked down on the apps side, we could visit all kinds of magical places on the internet and do things like buy books online. As Marc Benioff said — what if we could use enterprise software the way we buy books on Amazon?
You could sign up online and using just your web browser access new functionality. The rest as they say is history.
The browser apps were NOT better than the native apps in terms of core funcationlity — even today a natively installed Excel or Numbers app beats the best online spreadsheet.
It took Steve Jobs and opening of the app store for us to realize that you can actually get best of both the worlds — cloud backends and a fully native, rich app running on your device fully exploiting its resources — rather than a boiled down version of the app forced to fit into the browser.
Today, the Apple app store and the Android app store have millions of apps with millions of developers making billions of dollars while there is no such equivalent for the PC.
Microsoft’s biggest failure of the last decade may not have been missing the cloud and the mobile revolutions but giving away probably the biggest advantage it had — developers building killer apps for your ecosystem. Microsoft seems to have finally acknowledged, and under Satya Nadella’s leadership is fighting back with innovations like apps that sit inside a VM container to isolate them and make them safe to install.
Today, the browser based cloud apps on the desktop completely bypass Microsoft’s Windows stack by running on the browser and most of the mobile apps run on either Apple iOS or Google Android. A daylight trillion dollar heist.