Google are reportedly planning to release an operating system based on their Chrome runtime/browser. If it was anyone else it would probably warrant no interest. The concept itself is not new, but when you consider the timing, the rise of RIAs, Google’s vast offerings and ability to create the future, it deserves a lot more thought.

Update: They have now announced it.

RIAs

I don’t think I need to re-inforce my position on RIAs being the de-facto applications in future. We’ve all seen the benefits emerge, and we’ve seen their capabilities more than double each year. RIAs run on regular “fat” operating systems very well, and we’ve begun to see them run well on other devices.

I made a switch at some point. From a desktop tower I moved to a laptop, and I have been using them ever since. The reason of course was portability. But this is a physical kind of portability that is really becoming unnecessary through what I like to call device redundancy: having many devices that all overlap in capabilities. Think of the app then the device, not the device then the app.

So now I have my work Mac, and downstairs I have a less powerful computer, well 4 really, all capable of handling non-day-job tasks. A MacBook, an iPod Touch, a Nokia smartphone, an Asus netbook and soon a Flash-enabled TV(?). Almost every one of these is able to access email, Twitter, Facebook, find out restaurant reviews, book cinema tickets, find train times, upload photos. The key is I don’t have to alter my experience a whole lot as I transition between them, because the majority of what I do is through a web app or RIA. If I do need the big guns for anything at all, I open Firefox and type in vnc://workmac and I can control the screen remotely, this is built into OS X.

The only reason the “work” laptop is required is because I am a programmer, a power user, and as such many of the applications have not quite made it to the web, but they almost have, and they certainly will. Of course us power users make up such a small drop in the ocean of what we might classically call computer users, this is vital when considering the feasibility of Google’s OS.

Why Google? Why now?

Google wait, they code, they buy, and then they shock, but they don’t do it via marketing like the others, they do it through an indefensible tour-de-force of truly useful software and services that you simply need.

The tech: Google have a diverse portfolio of technologies to pick from. Their experience with Flash in Google Analytics and YouTube, HTML and JavaScript in applications such as Google Mail (primarily created using Java that outputs the HTML/JS), their open 3D plugin O3D, their Google Gears for offline storage of data, and of course HTML5 with JavaScript which is perhaps where we’ll see them lean should it reach sufficient fruition in the 2010′s.

Of course this is all underpinned by Google Native Client.

The apps: Google have been quietly amassing software for all needs: Search, Maps, Docs (Office), Mail, Picassa (photos), Calendar, Reader (news), Sketchup (3D), and a runtime, Chrome. The reach of their offering, when tied up with a neat cohesive bow clearly infringes on, and actually improves on, what an operating system may offer. Apple for example offer only some of these applications with a new computer, Microsoft even less (although the competition between the two has seen the standard offerings increase each time).

The Cloud: Key to the tenant that the user is now a traveler, a migrant of devices, the cloud provides the synchronisation that turns being up to date from a chore, into an automatic security blanket.

Google have just been filling in the holes, but they are just steps away from a coherent super-stack.

OS Wars

Switching operating systems used to be a big deal, even if you were a geek. Average Joe and Joeline have used Microsoft’s Windows for years, and they may have spent time learning how to use Office. Then came the free “net books”, so cheap and so small they had to have one. But the first netbooks ran a Linux distro. The result was an absolute fail… unfamiliar enough to cause problems, hard to go beyond the surface, so Windows took its place once again.

But things have changed a little due to the migration of applications onto the web. If your only concern in the OS is the browser, you become truly portable. No matter which device you use, from tablet, to phone, to surface computer, your experience is 99% the same conceptually, in terms of terminology and perhaps even in terms of visuals.

This was the promise of Flash, those early pioneers even built virtual operating systems in it, doomed to fail a premature death. After we started to see successful apps built in Flash, a quick succession of alternative techniques emerged include AJAX and Silverlight; (almost) everyone saw the benefits of this model. More than that, this quickly became the primary method of producing an application. Do the numbers, how many web apps are released against desktop.

Google Chrome OS

So it seems now is the time where a lightweight contender with enough focus, and enough driving force could succeed in tipping the balance finally from desktop to web.

If you remember the very first Micrsoft WPF demos, they showed desktop applications which were email-able, inherently connected. At the time I considered these islands in the cloud, whether that was the future of apps, indeed it seemed silly to have to start an OS, to start a web browser, to start an app. Why not cut out the middle man (as does AIR). But this big old web-browser kept on being too useful, too good at connecting the dots, so it lingers. When you turn *it* into the OS, that doesn’t cut out the middle man, it cuts out the old guy that was behind him. Indeed most people don’t even know what the browser is/was.

Google Chrome OS is nothing new, from the Pogo of the 90′s, to linux netbooks of this decade, to the Crunchpad of next, we’ve seen these light-weight alternatives come and go, but this is a war of attrition, and it’s the users that are the grains of sand wearing down at the walls of the Fat Operating System, not the technology.

  • Paul Maddox

    Posted: July 8, 2009


    "Google wait, they code, they buy, and then they shock"

    You mean like announcing an OS a *year* before it's likely going to be available?


  • Sachendra Yadav

    Posted: July 8, 2009


    When Chrome launched I knew it was targeted at Windows OS and not IE. http://bit.ly/Ee5fe I think they realized that they need more control as everything that's required for an app like Word to function properly is not possible just from the browser


  • Rich

    Posted: July 8, 2009


    Paul, it's a good point, I think it'd be better to say they shock by changing the landscape. Google Docs may not have been the first, but it has had a huge impact on how people see Office in terms of a value proposition and access anywhere. But still, a year's heads up is not enough time to build a rival OS in that same territory.


  • adi

    Posted: July 8, 2009


    Very nice article. I think the release of Chrome OS is one step forward to the use of cloud based application. If people are willing to move towards this then Chrome OS will have a head start as an OS for cloud applications. Outside the cloud I don't think they can compete with Windows OS, Linux, Apple, and I don't think they want to.


  • Eric

    Posted: July 8, 2009


    @Richard Leggett: You'd be right that a year isn't enough time to make a competing OS. And that's why they are using a linux core with their chrome browser and probably other apps on top of it. I'm guessing the chrome browser will be tightly integrated. I think that for normal (read non-business) applications, an OS that is basically a browser could satisfy lot's of people's itch.


  • Michael Kaufman

    Posted: July 8, 2009


    Thanks for the article - very fascinating stuff. I wonder what Microsoft will do in response. Open source Windows at some point? Some of .net is already going open source, right? My prediction: Microsoft makes Mark Zukerberg an offer for Facebook he can't refuse, then makes it a Silverlight product.


  • E. C. E.

    Posted: July 9, 2009


    The gaming community is still pretty big as far as PC's go, though. I saw some of the OEMs Google is working with, but do you have any info as to whether they are working driver issues?

    Video cards, sound, internal and external peripherals all depend largely on 3rd party driver support. I didn't see Nvidia on their list.

    At this point I see this being a great solution for those who basically are just concerned with Facebook and twitter and thin web apps. I care pretty much zero for these sorts of activities. As a gamer, I think Chrome OS adoption is a long way off. I'm no MS lover, but it's still kind of indisputable that they are the PC gaming platform of choice and probably will remain so for some time. The console has come a long way, but it's just sort of morphing into another "fat" PC anyway.


    But, as an Ubuntu user who would love to play more games in a linux environment, I think Chrome OS is a good thing because if they do eventually inspire any "thick" apps (games) that depend heavily on internal processing power, they would probably be pretty easily portable to other distros.

    Cautiously optimistic.