Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Google Chrome OS: The Post-PC, Post-Phone Era Begins in Earnest

I have been using Google Chrome as my Web browser for several months, now, after giving up on Microsoft Internet Explorer years ago and then suffering from Firefox's add-ons and crashes bogging down what little memory was left on my PC. The Chrome browser fires off separate processes for each window or tab that you open, making it easier to keep it humming along as a stable Web appliance. If one window or tab fouls up, you get a polite "aw, snap" message from Chrome and the rest of your browsing stays intact. That's the kind of simplicity and reliability that's sadly lacking from most other Web browsing software that tries to address too many technology agendas.

Google is now expanding its Chrome brand to include an emerging computer operating system that has been announced today on its official blog. ChromeOS will be an open-source operating sytem based on a Linux kernel that will be released on netbooks and other devices sometime in the next year or so. The goal of ChromeOS is fairly straightforward: turn netbooks into the "instant-on" Web appliances that phones, PCs and even Apple's Mac computers were never designed to be. Conceived of originally in the era of minicomputers and early microprocessors, PCs and Macs were always modeled on machines that were ultimately never meant to be consumer appliances. My PC today, overburdened with software that I rarely use, takes at least as long with a 1.7 gigahertz processor to start up as my original 66 megahertz home PC did more than sixteen years ago. That was fine when I used my PC for a lot of my work: today most of my work takes place on the Web.

Google's assets, by contrast, are almost exclusively Web-based - as are the content assets of most individuals and an increasing number of institutions. Just as the Chrome browser strips out most non-essential functions to get people into Web standards-based functionality as cleanly as possible, so will ChromeOS support appliances that have Web access as their primary goal. The Google blog makes clear that desktop functionality in ChromeOS will be kept to a minimum with this in mind: just cut to the browser, thank you very much, you know where I'm going. ChromeOS may overlap somewhat with its Android operating system targeted at mobile phones with this goal in mind, but as the takeup on Android in the netbook world has only begun - and as mobile voice communications are migrating increasingly into the Web itself - any conflict between choosing ChromeOS and Android in the netbook market is likely to be minimal. What's more likely is that Android will be to ChromeOS as Windows Mobile is to PC-based versions of Windows, except that ChromeOS will not target enterprise-strength desktops and servers. Why bother, when Google specializes in platform-neutral access to all of the content on those platforms?

With that in mind, some of the hysteria in today's split-second reactions in the media to this announcement are a little hyperbolic. I doubt that there will be a "nuclear winter for Microsoft" as a result of the ChromeOS announcement. Enterprises will continue to need heavy-duty information appliances to address a wide variety of publishing needs, while at-home gamers and entertainment buffs will continue to want the maximum hardware and software available to maximize their experiences. It's unlikely that ChromeOS will beat any significant paths into these markets any time soon, though its promises of virus-free operation may inspire some crossovers. Instead, Google will more likely use ChromeOS-based appliances to expand the global footprint of people able to access the Web cost-effectively and reliably in as many ways as possible. In other words, the five billion or so people who have yet to access the Web can help Google to redefine the pie from which it draws market share for its content and technology services, just as it redefined the advertising pie with its AdWords contextual search ads and the aggregation pie with its many content services.

With most content being maintained already in the cloud of Web storage and services, Google ChromeOS is a reminder that after all these years the fundamental story about what is changing human communications remains the Web itself. The appliances that make Web access possible will be made more efficient via ChromeOS but it's the content and communications which they access which will continue to drive the changes in the world prompted by more universal electronic publishing and content consumption. With emerging tools such as Google's Wave messaging environment beginning to redefine how people communicate collaboratively via voice, text and images, it's likely that ChromeOS will be a middle-of-the-road technology strategy that will, in the long run, create an environment in which PCs and mobile phones as we have known them are pushed to the sidelines to cater to increasingly legacy-bound markets while ChromeOS defines the new "just-right" level of technology for most on-the-go and in-lap-at-home content use. Others such as Microsoft and Apple are starting to aim for that "just-right" Web niche as well, of course, so the pie will have more than one slice out of it. So yes, let's pay attention to ChromeOS, recognize its significance to the long-term future of content platforms - and then let's get back to being as serious about the Web as possible.
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