Can Firefox Last Five More Years? Forecast: Cloudy

In a world where computing goes "cloudy," can Firefox survive? What if Chrome OS successfully merges browser with operating system to create a new Google world order?

This is all highly speculative, but on Firefox's fifth birthday, I fear for the browser's future. (I am not alone; Tony Bradley also worries over Firefox).

The coming war between Microsoft and Google is likely to be fought in the cloud, perhaps with browsers tuned to support each company's vision--and defy the other's.

Google's Chrome browser and OS seem to be a step in this direction, to a desktop that is optimized for software and data that reside in the Internet cloud. In such a world, operating systems--as we know them today--might not matter so much.

That plays to Google's strength and against Microsoft's. Whether it is a good thing for businesses and their users remains to be seen. For many, cloud computing forces a reassessment of what they expect from applications and how they are used.

I am thinking specifically about the feature gap that exists between Google Apps, hosted online, and Microsoft Office, which resides on the user's computer. This gap may not exist forever, but somehow I do not see Google ever competing with Microsoft on a feature-for-feature basis.

The biggest danger to Firefox, as it enters its second half-decade, is the changing role of browsers, from surfing the Internet to running applications. This makes me wonder whether Firefox will be a casualty in the battle between Google and Microsoft.

Chrome OS may be an environment specifically built to run Google's cloud apps and those built to some future Google specification. I can see Microsoft moving in the same direction, though it is unlikely to abandon Windows for something more Chrome-like.

If the two superpowers are going to fight it out in the clouds, with browsers and browser-based operating systems their weapons of choice, what is a mere open source browser to do?

It all depends on how things play out and is, of course, dependent on cloud computing actually becoming if not the dominant business-computing model, at least something close.

When Java was introduced, there was much discussion over how it might supplant Windows and become the environment of choice for applications. You may remember when "write once, run everywhere" was supposed to trounce Microsoft Windows with a wave of portable desktop apps.

That did not happen, but this might: Future-generation browsers, and I am thinking Chrome and Chrome OS here, might work with cloud applications to effectively neutralize the desktop OS. In so doing, the choice of a browser may become more one of whose cloud you want to use than the features of the browser itself.

Maybe Firefox can prosper in such a world, either by being the browser that supports both Microsoft and Google on equal footing, or simply by avoiding the fray. I cannot accurately predict the future of cloud computing, but my guess is the browser of five years from now may play a different role than the Firefox of 2009.

I would appreciate your take on these issues.

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

This story, "Can Firefox Last Five More Years? Forecast: Cloudy" was originally published by PCWorld.

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