Google Chrome OS

If I was building an OS today I’d be building what Google just announced.

Like most heavy technology users I’ve been moving heavily toward hosted web applications over the past few years. I don’t use Evolution or mutt anymore, I use GMail. I don’t organize my photos on my laptop and use my own hosted Gallery, I use Flickr. I’ve never been a big office application user, but when I’m forced to open a Powerpoint deck, edit an Excel file or print out a Word document, I do it using Google docs.

I’ve also spent the past four or five or so years working on blurring the line between what’s on your desktop and what’s online. At Flock I worked to synchronize your bookmarks to online services and between machines, to integrate personalized web search into your desktop workflow and to make publishing media from your devices as easy as publishing text from your keyboard. At Songbird we developed APIs to allow web apps to interact with your desktop media player and APIs to let your desktop media player access content from the web. At Rdio I worked on similar things, from a slightly different approach, I don’t think I can talk about them yet.

I’m really excited that Google has the balls (and the skills) to go all out. To commit to offering enough APIs to web applications to allow them to provide the same functionality and user experience as desktop applications would. This isn’t the first time that this has been attempted, but I think this time it just might work. Just a couple of years ago when the iPhone launched and Apple announced that the only way to write applications was to write web applications users and developers rebelled. The iPhone browser wasn’t capable enough. Google have taken the right approach by committing to improving the web platform to support whatever APIs are needed before shipping the product.

I’ll never be running Chrome OS. I rely on too many specialized applications, but I am looking forward to when Flickr can pull photos right off my camera and GMail’s offline features are widely tested enough to actually work right. Much of the innovation in Chrome OS will benefit us all.

13 replies on “Google Chrome OS”

  1. Indeed. Lots of nay sayers, but I’m really intrigued. There’s nothing in the netbook/portables space that couldn’t be done as a web service. As a matter of fact flickr and its management/editing tools probably beat what I use on the desktop now.

    1. @Jakub, There will always be people who need or want high-end photo editing software that will be easier to write as a local application than a network one – simply because of network speed, but they’re a tiny minority.

      While I still want my compiler and editor local I actually want the web version of basically everything else.

  2. Why compile code when you can interpret it on a Heroku instance? Need more performance? Scatter it across a few hundred Erlang interpreters. Why edit locally when you can edit it remotely? The bandwidth requirements for code editing are trivial.

    Sure, not all the user-side is quite there yet, but with a few plugins that give the browser more native access to the hardware, you can do a lot. Look at Firefox’s geolocation API, for example, or the Flash webcam/microphone API.

    Even considering bandwidth-intensive applications (video and music editing are the first two I can think of off the top of my head) you can always store that data locally and just serve up the application. When you finish, render straight to YouTube, and sync the data to your personal data store while you sleep that night.

    It is sadly ironic that if this Linux-derived approach were successful it would be crippling to the open source community. Good luck trying to fork Facebook, or Flickr. I imagine this development would lead to a strong open-data movement. In a future where everything is a web app, who owns my list of Facebook contacts? And whose decision is it if I want to take my photo collection from Flickr and take it elsewhere?

  3. @pvh, You’re of course right. With NativeClient can do fast compute and some more APIs will make at least consumer video editing etc possible.

    The bandwidth problem can be solved, you can either store and process the canonical version on the server or on the client and transfer low-res versions between.

    As for the free software implications, I think we need to either start taking AGPL3 seriously and using it everywhere or focus really hard on open protocol and open data as a consumer right.

  4. Actually, I find a big difference between the audience I’d recommend Macs for now and the audience I’d recommend Chrome OS for, though there is a big overlap. A strong point of Macs remain that they are good machines for people who want to do creative stuff with media. I find there is less friction creating and transforming music, graphics, video, etc on Macs on average for creative use. Whereas Chrome is for people who want mostly to communicate, mostly using words – which covers a really large number of people, and is a group quite well served by Macs currently, but not quite the same people (no value judgement is implied about either kind of person, obviously).

    Linux, of course, remains an excellent platform for people who want to do creative things with code.

  5. @Dave, yes of course. If Chrome OS turns out like it could and applications move online more I expect that special purpose operating systems will exist for media creators (MacOS) and developers (Linux desktop), but far fewer people will need to use them. In theory more and more of that stuff could move online, but it’s diminishing returns. I don’t find myself actually recommending MacOS to people who want to edit digital video or do advanced photography – they’re already running it 🙂

  6. I think it is quite interesting how the idea of the Mac as a ‘digital hub’ seemed so prescient in retrospect (introduced pre-iPod, pre-OS X), but is starting to look so old-fashioned – we don’t want a digital hub now, we just want points of access to the digital cloud. The idea of Mac OS X as digital media creation platform still seems strong (I love the Mac as a music creation platform too, Logic and Live etc) but thats a much less mass market concept.

  7. @Dave, Yeah, and Apple has done a good job shifting gradually from a desktop ‘digital hub’ model (though the iPod, iPhone and Apple TV are far too tethered for my liking) to the ‘cloud of devices’ model. I mean they don’t seem to be really working on desktop OS features.

    Really specialized tools like Live, Reason, Photoshop and Eclipse tend to throw away most of the OS anyway. They work the same on Windows as they do on Mac, and there’s no way browsers would ever expose enough APIs to do a port. On the other hand it should be possible to implement something more along the lines of GarageBand, iPhoto, etc though more limited predictable APIs.

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