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Google Chrome OS is 7 years too late

Written by on July 9, 2009

Yesterday Google announced that it was going to make their browser based operating system. And within seconds there was a million tweets from people all saying that Google Chrome OS is going to kill Windows. But you know, I do not think that is going to happen at all. Here is why.

Google Chrome OS made sense 7 years ago, but today the world no longer need it. We no longer have many of the problems that caused us to make web applications in the first place. Now we got cloud services and API's, which gives us the freedom to use the best type of app for the job, instead of restricting us to a single type.

At the same time, we no longer have problems getting online. 7 years ago, one of the main reason why we turned to the web was because that it was impractical to bring our computers with us. We had to turn to web applications, because we needed to be able to work from any place, at any time, on either borrowed internet connections or computers.

But today we have mobile internet, and with the iPhone (and others) we literally have the internet in our pockets. It's no longer hard to bring the internet with us. We no longer need to borrow other people's computers.

And the biggest nail in the coffin, for a browser OS, is the rich client apps. 7 years ago, we had desktop apps, which was static, hard to update, complicated to make, very inflexible and rarely internet enabled. The only redeeming feature was that the desktop apps took full advantage of the local system resources.

So again it made sense to turn to web apps. They were much easier to work with, much more flexible, no updating required, and they were always online. The problem, however, with web apps is the browser. The browser is incredibly limiting in what you can do. It is slow, it doesn't take advantage of the hardware, and HTML5+CSS+JavaScript was never built to support complex applications.

But today we got rich client apps. Applications made with e.g. Adobe Air, that works cross-platform. They are extremely flexible to make, very easy to update, can take full advantage of the hardware, and is directly tied into the cloud via API's.

I think Steve Jobs said it the best when he explained why they made Google Maps as a native app, instead of a web app. This is what he said during his interview along with Bill Gates at D5:


Steve Jobs: I'll give you a concrete example. I love Google Maps, use it on my computer, you know, in a browser. But when we were doing the iPhone, we thought, wouldn't it be great to have maps on the iPhone? And so we called up Google and they'd done a few client apps in Java on some phones and they had an API that we worked with them a little on. And we ended up writing a client app for those APIs. They would provide the back-end service. And the app we were able to write, since we're pretty reasonable at writing apps, blows away any Google Maps client. Just blows it away. Same set of data coming off the server, but the experience you have using it is unbelievable. It's way better than the computer. And just in a completely different league than what they'd put on phones before.

And, you know, that client is the result of a lot of technology on the client, that client application. So when we show it to them, they're just blown away by how good it is. And you can't do that stuff in a browser.

So people are figuring out how to do more in a browser, how to get a persistent state of things when you're disconnected from a browser, how do you actually run apps locally using, you know, apps written in those technologies so they can be pretty transparent, whether you're connected or not.

But it's happening fairly slowly and there's still a lot you can do with a rich client environment. At the same time, the hardware is progressing to where you can run a rich client environment on lower and lower cost devices, on lower and lower power devices. And so there are some pretty cool things you can do with clients.

Walt Mossberg: OK. So you're saying rich clients still matter, but-maybe I misunderstood you, but your example was about a rich client that is not a personal computer as we have thought of a personal computer.

Steve Jobs: What I'm saying is, I think the marriage of some really great client apps with some really great cloud services is incredibly powerful and right now, can be way more powerful than just having a browser on the client.


Basically what Steve is saying is that instead of moving your apps into the browser, use the power of the rich-client and the power of the cloud. And connect these two together, using an API. This way you get the best of all worlds.

This is exactly the kind of thing we see with all the recent Twitter apps. And this is the lesson that people learn with the mobile platform.

You can make impressive web apps for the iPhone, but making a non-browser app just blows you away.

Deciding to make a browser-based OS, in 2009, is the wrong decision. The browser is the one element that gets in the way. We don't want the browser to be our primary application. We want the internet to be our primary application, and there is a big difference between the two.

Another thing to keep in mind is how people are using Twitter. In the past, the main way to use social networks was to visit the sites. But today it is no longer the case. Only 20% of Twitter's traffic comes via the browser. The rest comes via rich clients that connect via the API. And we use Twitter directly from our mobiles or netbooks.

We have already moved beyond the browser. It's happening now. We found a better way and it is called the Cloud+API+ {the-best-tool-for-the-job}

The Operating Systems in 2019

If we look 10 years into the future we are going to see big changes in four different areas: The mobile internet, the cloud, APIs, and the missing personal computer.

The mobile internet

Today the mobile internet is just getting started. The infrastructure is not really in place, and the mobile carriers are just learning about the new world of mobile internet. But consider this.

The next generation mobile internet is called 4G, and it will give you mobile internet with a speed of 100 Mbit/s (or maybe even more). That is the same speed as you have on your home network, and it is twice as fast as what you can get out of your WI-FI connection.

And this is mobile internet. You will be online anywhere in the world as if you were sitting at home.

The Cloud

The other big thing is the cloud. Cloud services are also just getting started, but in the future a very big part of what we do will be handled by it.

Once we get 4G mobile internet, the cloud suddenly starts to make sense. It will be just as easy to work with files in the cloud as it is from your home network. And, there are a lot of other advantages of storing your files in the cloud.

It is much easier to collaborate and share your files (which is a big thing in a connected world), and you can quickly work with your files across a multitude of rich client apps. E.g. Just look at how Amazon Kindle allows you to seamlessly read ebooks between the full Kindle and the iPhone Kindle.

It doesn't matter which device you use, because the cloud remembers how far you got.

The cloud will:

  1. Store, index and structure all your data.
  2. Manage your settings, personalization options and targeting algorithms.
  3. Automate and analyze, and allow for some highly efficient background services. Like the On2 Flix Cloud, that converts video files for you automatically.

So the cloud will take over your data, and allow you to do some really amazing things with it.

But keep in mind that you will not be using a single cloud provider. You will probably be using 50 different ones, depending on what kind of job that needs doing.

The APIs

We have been talking about the semantic web for years. You know, a web where we could work with the data directly, instead of some HTML output. So far nothing has really happened. The web is still largely non-semantic.

But something strange has happened in 2009. Because now a ton of sites is outputting their content in the form of an API, and an API is all about the data. So without realizing it, the semantic web exists in the form of API's. Every site and every services that outputs their content in the form of XML is an API. And as such you got semantics.

We all know about the big API's like the Twitter or Flickr API (and partly Facebook, which isn't really an API). But almost every other site is also outputting their data in XML via RSS. That is essentially an API too.

The missing personal computer

But the biggest change is what is going to happen with our personal computer. In the future the concept of a personal computer is going to disappear.

There are generally 4 reasons why we buy a laptop today:

  1. We use it to have somewhere to store our data.
  2. We need the power of the computer to do our work
  3. We need a big screen
  4. We need to be able to bring all of it with us.

But it is predicted that the your mobile devices will be as powerful as your laptops within the next 10 years, and when you combine that with the cloud, then all you really need is an iPhone.

  1. The data is stored in the cloud
  2. Your mobile will provide local power to allow you to create amazing and engaging interactions, but the cloud will take care of the heavy-duty stuff. Like when you want to render a movie.
  3. Your mobile can connect to your big screen (and adjust the interaction to take advantage of the bigger screen space).
  4. Your mobile is already far more portable than any laptop.

Computing in 2009

Computing in the future

The Google Browser OS

So we do not want a 'Browser OS'. With the advancements of the Cloud, the API's, the mobile internet and the future of computing, what we really need is an 'Internet OS'.

We need something that can take full advantage of the power of the cloud, mix that with the power of our mobile devices, and allow us to create a rich internet experience. We need something that goes far beyond the power of the browser.

I think we are going to see a lot of experimentations with web-based services. Google is coming out with their browser OS, and Microsoft is probably announcing Office for the Web on Monday. Google is also coming out with Google Wave, which is really exciting. Not to mention Google Gears that allows you to work with data locally. And, we are also seeing some really exciting stuff from the Webkit people.

So the next 5 years is going to be filled with web apps.

But the browser, being a viewer of HTML5+CSS+JavaScript is not capable of 'blowing you away', so we have to move beyond it. This will start to happen in the next 5 years.

There are two ways this can happen. The browser can either evolve to be much more than it is today. Moving beyond the limitations of HTML+CSS+Javascript (and Google is certainly trying to do that). But considering the low speed of the World Wide Web consortium, I just do not see it happening.

The other solution is to rethink the operating system. Make something that combines the power of the cloud, with the functionality and hardware of the mobile devices, and create a genuine 'Internet OS'.

At any case, at some point in the next 10 years, we are going to move beyond the browser.

What do you think?

Read also: Designing Future Websites

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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