Google Chrome OS: So What?

The new Google Chrome OS is the big news in the tech world today (more than 200 references on Techmeme as of noon today). For those of you living under a rock, the gist is that Google’s coming out with an operating system, layered on top of a Linux kernel, that will power netbooks, and eventually desktop PCs. Applications will all be Web-based, accessible via Google’s Chrome browser.

It’s being touted as the death knell for Microsoft, a redefinition of the operating system, and a torpedo being fired at Microsoft and Apple.

I just can’t get excited about it, really. I know it’s generally accepted knowledge that everything Google touches will turn to gold, but that’s just not the case anymore, with its failures in print and radio advertising.

The other reason I’m unimpressed is that I’ve seen the much-hyped promise of Web-based computing before, and it’s never materialized. To use a phrase I haven’t used in probably 30 years, it’s “no big whoop.”

Way back when, from 2001-2004, I managed a Web site on ASPs, or application service providers, and thin clients. It was thought by many in the industry that this kind of Web-based, “utility computing,” was just around the corner. Companies like Citrix, IBM, HP, Marc Andreessen’s LoudCloud, and even — gasp — Microsoft were working on this “next big thing” that never got the “next” taken off it.

Sure, a lot of progress has been made in the last several years, but some of the same objections that prevented ASPs from taking off then will slow or stop progress of today’s cloud-based computing initiatives too:

1. Connectivity Issues

The idea of running every application from a central server is great for portability and efficiency, but even the best networks have down time. Google apps have a feature that allows users to work offline and synch when reconnected, but that may not be enough for mission-critical, time-sensitive applications.

Could Google’s investment in “dark fiber” be the solution? Is Google going to develop a better Internet, to go along with its Chrome OS? Only time will tell.

2. Computing Power

For Web browsing, word processing, or any number of low-impact applications, a server-based application accessed by client device with low computing power is more than adequate. But what about photo or video editing, or heavy data-crunching? It’s possible that the Internet’s quality will improve so that these applications run seamlessly from a server as well. But until they do, Web-based apps will always be limited in scope.

Perhaps Google will follow Microsoft’s example with its Office suite, and create a hybrid application that combines a desktop application with cloud computing. But that’s not what Chrome OS promises now.

3. Privacy

Any time sensitive data is stored or passed on a network outside of the user’s control, the user will feel uneasy. This will happen whether the concern is warranted or not. Google has been critiqued enough for getting too personal, and impinging on users’ privacy to get away without answering this question over and over again.

There are those people who will see this as just another step toward Google becoming the post-apocalyptic Skynet network from the Terminator movies.

4. Inertia

Like it or not, people like to stick with what they know. It’s not always a logical decision, but anyone who’s ever worked in a company of any size knows that most decisions are not based on a silly thing like logic. A new product needs to stand head and shoulders above the rest to get people to consider switching. It’s the problem Microsoft (or anyone else) has when trying to get users to switch from Google Search.

Will Chrome OS be head and shoulders above what’s already out there? It seems like it’s going to limit people’s options more than expand them, at least in the short-term.

The future of computing is, of course, still wide open. I’m not saying that Google can’t be the next big player in Web-based operating systems and applications. But the reaction to Chrome OS is a bit premature, to say the least. You’d think it was almost as important as the 24-hour coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral or something.

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