Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Victory of the Cloud: Chrome OS, Database.com Debuts Shatter PC/Server Models

It's been one of those days during which major product announcements have been flowing like a continuous stream. On the heels of yesterday's Google eBooks launch, previewed earlier in ContentBlogger, comes word from Salesforce.com that it is preparing to launch Database.com, a cloud-based database service that is scaled and designed to support enterprise-scaled database applications. Applications demoed in the introductory video included core enterprise functionality as well as databases supporting apps in Facebook and mobile devices. SFDC has been offering scalable cloud services since the beginning, so from one perspective this is nothing terribly new. What is new is the degree to which this new package may challenge Oracle and other enterprise database services that have tried to make the in-house I.T. stack increasingly proprietary at increasingly onerous price points. It's quite possible that a well-designed cloud service like Database.com might be the thing that begins to tip many enterprises towards going all-cloud for many of its functions.

At the same time there have been major related cloud computing announcements by Google, introducing a pilot program for their Chrome OS operating system made available to developers and other interested parties on about 65,000 pre-release netbooks tuned specifically to the capabilities of Chrome OS. Chrome OS is in essence a "nothing but cloud" computer, trimmed down to support apps and Web content in a Chrome Web browser and a minimum of  other services. Of course, the way that Chrome now works, you may not need much of anything else. Amongst the surge of Google tools announced was Google Cloud Print, a utility that will enable printing of content displayed in a Chrome browser from other machines. Displaying a report on your smart phone and need to print it out? No problem, if you're using either Chrome OS or a PC equipped with a Chrome browser. During the announcement demo of Chrome OS a Citrix executive demonstrated enterprise applications operating comfortably in Chrome OS via a virtual desktop-like display. Need to use legacy software like Microsoft Office? No problem, Chrome OS will handle it with services from vendors like Citrix.

Complementing the Chrome OS upgrade is the launch Chrome Web Store, an online store for browser-enabled apps.  The Chrome Web store includes many familiar Google services such as Google Apps, but also a wide variety of Web apps that are not at all related to Google and some that use new ecommerce and security interfaces to enable the easy purchase of premium Web apps via Google Checkout. Purchases are simple enough, though many of the available apps are free or "freemium" services. Included as an app in the Chrome Web Store is the new ebook reader for content available in the Google eBookstore, There are also apps provided by publishers such as Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, which display some of the capabilities of Web apps for transforming media. The SI app is pretty good, providing really great displays of their famous photos along with game scores and other content, all in a touch-screen friendly format. The NYT effort is not quite as impressive, but a good first try at trying to do more with the Web than the usual flat display of text and graphics.

All of these new product announcements are reminders that the era of the PC is drawing to a close quickly. Enterprises are all to eager to get rid of PCs, as they are by far the most troublesome source of security and maintenance problems for their operations. One disgruntled or careless employee can send critical information into the wrong hands all to easily (Wikileaks, anyone?). And while I.T. managers would not be too loud about admitting it today, their servers for databases are largely boat anchors of aging technologies that could be easily outsourced to cloud services if they had the right security, performance and service agreements. Toss in new computer hardware capabilities that will enable netbooks fully tuned to Chrome OS to turn on almost instantly, and it's not hard to imagine that in a few years most information-oriented workers will be sporting machines like those based on Chrome OS.

Some people scratch their heads and wonder why Google would bother releasing Chrome OS just as its Android operating system is beginning to dominate the mobile device market worldwide. The short answer is that most enterprises need productivity tools with higher performance than Android can support right now, tools that are complemented easily enough by a wide variety of mobile phones and tablets when it's not convenient to whip out a netbook. In the long run, it could be that Chrome OS supercedes Android, but for now working people on the go need a good keyboard, a full-screen browser and uncompromised access to the Web - without the headaches of hard drive crashes or worries about stolen or corrupted data. Chrome OS meets these needs well by keeping all of its key data in the cloud, providing a browser-based cache of local data to facilitate the operation of apps when a network connection is lacking but not bothering to keep it on a Chrome OS machine permanently.

The sleeper play in this surge of announcements is The Chrome Web Store, an aggregation of browser-enabled apps that will begin to make it more clear to average Web users that you don't have to go to a proprietary apps platform to get highly functional content services that can be monetized either by ads or by purchases and subscriptions. The Web has become a fully functional platform for applications, challenging publishers to deliver more value to their customers beyond many of their relatively rudimentary Web sites. It's a platform that works on most any up-to-date device anywhere on the world, securely, speedily and with a high level of display quality and functionality. I have been perhaps a bit of a chide these past several months about how "apps mania" on proprietary devices was missing the real trends that will be moving publishers over the next several years. Today, I need chide no longer. That future has just arrived, and it's spelled W-e-b. Or, perhaps more accurately, The Second Web.
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