Why Chrome OS Likely Doesn’t Matter Anymore
In July of 2009, Google announced a new operating system based on the Chrome browser: ChromeOS. The idea was all applications would run inside the browser and the underlying OS would only provide enough functionality to allow the browser to load. All data would reside “in the cloud”.
I remember that announcement very clearly and how excited I was. I even went around buying up domain names of web applications I thought ChromeOS would need and I would famously build in my spare time (anyone interested in a barely used http://www.chrometunes.com?) I felt ChromeOS would be the perfect solution for casual users like my parents performing relatively lightweight tasks like viewing and storing photos, music, and documents. The ultimate “thin client” had finally arrived.
On January 27, 2010, Apple announced the iPad and things began to change. Many people, including myself, grew to think that a tablet could fill the casual computer user space better than a small notebook. The iPad is cheap, light, easy to use, and gets stellar battery life. And, not only does it have a very healthy app ecosystem, it also runs modern web applications extremely well. It’s the best of both worlds. Android also stands to perhaps fill that need in the near future with the same split of a native app ecosystem and an advanced web browser.
A few days ago, Google finally released reference hardware of ChromeOS to a fair amount of fanfare. While I’m still intrigued on the concept, the overall idea is much less exciting to me. Before the iPad, I could easily picture an ecosystem that didn’t bother with native applications.
Now, I’m not so sure.
There’s a reason the “thin client” model never really materialized and I don’t see that changing any time soon. For the end user, and especially the casual end user, the fact that the “OS is a browser!!1!!1!” doesn’t matter nearly as much as the actual experience. Browsers have come a long way, but curated and tailored experiences are still very valuable and users have demonstrated they are willing to pay a premium for them.
In short, the application platform is really irrelevant to most people. What matters is a great experience. Both the iPad and MacBook Air turn on almost as quickly as you can press a button or open a lid … just like ChromeOS. Does it matter that one is a “thin client” and the other two aren’t?
I agree that remote data storage is a valuable thing for casual users. Issues of privacy aside, it’s extremely convenient to have access to documents, photos, and media regardless of location.
But we already have that. We can view and edit documents stored on the Internet from your phone, laptop, and desktop today. We can access Facebook and Netflix from a Samsung TV or an iPhone. What exactly is ChromeOS providing that adds something unique and new? Will it do it dramatically better? So far, I’m not seeing it.
Before the iPad, the cheapest way to get into casual computing was the relatively poor experience of an entry level “netbook”. Today, you can easily get a great casual computing experience for under $500. ChromeOS may have promised a much lower price point and better quality in 2009, but the bar has moved a lot since then.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with ChromeOS, but I honestly don’t see it gaining a lot of momentum. I see a future in which casual users will connect to their data with tablets, TVs, and phones and the more advanced users will continue to use powerful laptops and desktops.