Something occurred recently with little fanfare or hype. More importantly, the hype over Chrome OS netbooks overshadowed how much more important this particular event could be for the future of computing and how we interface with our operating systems.
Everyone knows that Google has determined that they're just not happy with having a single badly fractured mobile operating system platform on the market. They think that what consumers really want is additional confusing choices. To achieve that goal, Google announced the release of the Google Chrome OS - which is really just a web browser, and nothing else, running on a laptop or netbook (at this point) and accessing your entire digital experience through the cloud.
It is a bold concept, one that Microsoft has been worrying about since they put Netscape out of business by bundling Internet Explorer with every copy of Windows. The press release for Chrome OS and hardware gives us a pretty good idea what it must be like at Google's Mountainview HQs, with brainy nerds running around doing their own thing, being creative, moving forward with wonderful ideas, often in direct conflict with other internal projects being driven by other brainy nerds who are doing their own thing in turn! It must be a blast to work in such an absolute madhouse of chaos and lack of clear direction.
My perception has always been that most consumers are relatively puzzled by the prospect of a cloud-based OS - and from what I've read about the model that Chrome is going to try and deliver, I've got to admit that I still don't quite get it. I'm not sure why I would opt in for an experience that requires some sort of connectivity in order to be useful and which moves all of my personal data off of my own machine and onto the cloud.
A recent controversy with Dropbox illustrates just one of many concerns end users have with trusting their data to the cloud. All "encrypted" data stored on Dropbox is accessible by employees through a back door - so, all it takes is a subpoena from the RIAA lawyers, following up on a tip that you might have a huge collection of pirated REO Speedwagon and Air Supply albums, and a Dropbox employee cheerfully grants full access to your Music folder. Imagine the shame if the guilty secret of your status as a Foreigner fan was publicly revealed!
So, there seems to be a lot not to love about Chrome OS, and there are already some voices out there on mainstream sites voicing their concerns and reservations.
I'm clearly a skeptic about cloud computing, and that has never been a secret. I'm also confused by the current direction of Google with regard to Android and Chrome, and I don't think I've ever been shy about that either. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there was a recent event that was overshadowed by the announcement of the release of Chrome OS netbooks that may be more important than the announcement of the release of Chrome-based retail hardware.
In the past, I've argued that it isn't having a bazillion apps in your market that matters the most - it's having a subset of the most desirable, in demand, and high-profile apps that really matters. I've got a handful of favorite apps, and they tend to be relatively cross platform. Dropbox, Evernote, Twitter, Facebook, and a handful of other applications tend to exist on Android, iOS, RIM, Windows Mobile, Windows, OS X, and even Linux, from time to time.
There are still some high-profile apps that are missing from one platform or another - and there are always very good, high-quality apps that are platform dependent - existing solely on iOS or Android or one of the other OS platforms. But in general, the best apps tend to exist on each platform and to be functionally similar (indistinguishable) from platform to platform.
One of the most popular mobile gaming phenomenons of the last several months has been Angry Birds. Although the popularity of this app is waning, it's still one of the most significant games to emerge from the current wave of mobile computing. Chances are that even your grandmother has Angry Birds on her smartphone at this point.
I recently noticed that Angry Birds was available for free at the Chrome Web Store. Curious, I downloaded the app on a Windows machine and sure enough, it was Angry Birds. I played for awhile and thought to myself, "That is kind of neat."
In a previous post, I wrote about my experience with JoliOS. One of my disappointments was with the slim native app selection. Today, I had an a-ha moment while using my JoliOS netbook. They've made it easy at JoliOS by making Chromium their default browser. I wondered if I could go to the Chrome Web Store and download Angry Birds and run it on JoliOS. I was pretty certain of the answer before I tried this, and I was right. It worked like a champ.
This is the killer feature that Chrome OS can promise to deliver - the actual realization of platform-independent application computing. It won't matter if you're on an Intel Core, Atom, ARM/Cortex A4 or A8, or any other hardware platform. Hardware abstraction layers should make it easy for developers to code for your I/O - keyboard, mouse, touchscreen, and accelerometer. In fact, you don't even have to run Chrome. There are Chrome extensions for Internet Explorer that will allow you to run Chrome web apps in IE. All you need is a modern web browser that's supported by Google.
I'm still on the fence about Chrome and how viable the Chrome approach to computing can be, but Google is headed in the right direction by signing up major players in the established app markets to design apps for Chrome delivery. I think that with the right set of must-have apps, they can probably make Chrome attractive enough within the niche of inexpensive netbook computing to be successful.
What do you think? Is Chrome the future of inexpensive mobile computing? Or is Chrome a dark off-ramp to a dead end, leading nowhere for Google? Let us hear your thoughts in the discussion thread.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.