Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Google Drive and the Disappearing Desktop

After a wave of leaks this week, Google is now preparing to introduce its new Google Drive service, timed to support their annual Google I/O 2012 developers conference. Google Drive is on one level just a catch-up product offering for Google, which will compete with the likes of Dropbox and other online personal file storage services that have been available for years. Google itself has been enabling its Google Docs users for some time to upload files of any kind to its document management service, so the concept isn't even particularly revolutionary from its own perspective, either.

So, why all the fuss about Google Drive? Well, for one thing, it fulfills a long-ago promised move by Google towards a "cloud drive" file management service that could be a direct extension of our desktops. "GDrive" never surfaced, though, perhaps in part because at the time it wasn't really advancing the interests of other Google products in any significant way. Storage is a commodity business, after all, and when the GDrive concept first surfaced, Google's Android and Chrome OS operating systems for mobile, in-home and desktop computers weren't even on the drawing boards. For that matter, even Google's Chrome browser wasn't around when GDrive was first rumored in 2004.

But now Google does have two operating systems, as well as the highly popular Chrome browser that runs on Windows PCs, Apple's OSX for its Mac PCs, Android and Linux. Chrome's availability on Apple's iOS mobile operating system for mobile phones and tablets is doubtful any time soon, though, because Apple refuses to support apps that use the video playback formats that Chrome supports. It doesn't appear that the new Google Drive is dependent on Chrome for installation; though; early screen shots of the implementation show links to download platform-specific apps that don't seem to reference Chrome in any way. For each of the platforms on which Google Drive is deployed, there is a piece of software available that will map that computer's hard drive management services to the cloud storage in Google Drive.

With an initial 5 gigabytes of free storage, it's designed to attract Dropbox customers who get a 2GB allocation for free up front. But while the short term bogies for Google Drive are services like Dropbox, Google has much larger fish to fry via cloud storage - namely, revenues and strategic market share. First, on the revenues side, the fees for storage will be relatively tiny, but the real opportunity is to place ads and other materials related to content stored on Google Drive. It's all part of understanding what make us tick, to be sure, though one imagines that this will be done carefully and discretely - and probably not even as a part of Google Drive itself, necessarily. Information gathered one place can be used in another, after all, and with its mobile services Google has a lot of places to apply those insights.

But the strategic opportunity is perhaps even more interesting. If you look at how Chrome OS is evolving in its most recent iterations, you can see that Chrome is becoming a desktop environment of its own for launching Web-based apps, with or without the full features of a Chrome browser. Most of these Web apps work via the "cloud," using browser-delivered code to run Web-centric apps, though some use the advanced features of HTML 5 to enable their use offline. But clearly the design of this latest version of Chrome OS is intended to demonstrate that cloud-based services from Google and other Web apps providers can act as a full-featured replacement for desktop and mobile PCs. Add Google Drive to the picture and the ability of Web apps to replace desktop software in managing one's files becomes that much more complete.

This desktop view for Chrome OS is not available in browsers that are used on other devices like PCs - it's only seen on Chromebook laptop computers sold by Samsung, Acer, and, soon, Sony and others. , as well as those who install the Chromium open source version Chrome OS on other devices. But one wonders how long that will be true. It seems highly likely that Google may make available its desktop view to people using the Chrome browser on other devices such as Windows PCs and Macs. In other words, once you've captured everyone's file system in the cloud for seamless integration with cloud services, the desire to use platform-specific software becomes increasingly dimmer.

The special twist to this story may come over time as Google begins to integrate Chrome with its Android operating system. Today, Chrome OS launches only Web-based apps; if you want to launch Android apps, well, you'll have to use a device running Android to access them. But how much longer will it be before we'll be able to integrate and launch Android apps on devices equipped with Chrome and Chrome OS? Already Chrome supports Native Client, a capability that enables programs written in non-Web programming languages to be launched from Chrome browsers. A well-"sandboxed" approach to launching Android apps in Chrome may lead to the Chrome desktop integrating both Web and Android apps for people's use.

Conversely, though, it could be that increasingly Web apps begin to take over many functions previously reserved for platform-specific apps such as Android apps. As HTML 5 gets more "hooks" into devices living beyond the Web cloud, the interfaces to drive touch screens, sensors, cameras and other equipment will make native Web apps development and launching look more appealing.

The long and the short of all of this is that Google Drive is far more than just a place to store your files. It's a critical piece in Google's rapidly evolving puzzle to deliver Web-centric services that are intended virtually every computing platform available today. If you're developing software and information services and you're not looking more seriously at exploiting the leading edge of what's possible in Web apps, then you're likely to miss the peak of this wave. Platform-specific software will be with us for many years to come, but with Google Drive the stage has been set for the traditional device desktop to disappear into the cloud in a bigger way than ever before.