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Why Google's Chrome OS Is Not in Your Future

Google caused a flurry of excitement last night when it revealed it would convert its Chrome browser into an operating system meant for netbooks. A chorus of OMG's burst from the tech blog network. This is a "clear shot in Microsoft's direction," said one blogger at ZDNet, calling it a "big style" game-changer before popping a few Halcion and trying to calm the hell down. Some bloggers like Jason Kottke were more measured, content to say "I called it!" and talk about how the Chrome OS is representative of the direction of computing. It's not. 

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Chrome will probably make a neat little OS experiment. It may even make its way onto a netbook or two. Still, this isn't a flaming poop-bag on Microsoft's doorstep, and it doesn't bother Apple much, either. That's because as far as operating systems go, the humble Web browser is a piece of garbage.

Yes, we're slowly migrating to a world where lots of our junk is stored on servers. But we're held back by our broadband infrastructure, which at present, is one of the worst in the civilized world. (Don't believe me? Read this.) Sometimes ditching old, vestigal technology is cool, as when Apple left behind the floppy drive and the serial port when it built the first iMac. But other times, the world just isn't ready; that's why you don't see any hydrogen cars in your parking lot, even though we've been told for the last 20 years that they're on the way.

There's another problem. No one uses Chrome. Depending on who you ask, its marketshare is between 1.5% and 2.5%, dwarfed even by also-ran browsers like Apple's Safari. If you were in charge of product development for a netbook-maker, how comfortable would you be with putting an operating system on your device that only 2% of your prospective customers have ever seen or used? Sure, they recognize the Google brand name. But how many Zunes has that sold for Microsoft?

Here's the other thing: why use Google's OS when it's cheap and easy to build a Linux-based system yourself? If Michael Arrington and his CrunchPad gang can do it, then I'd venture that pretty much any hardware maker can. Skinning it and customizing it will have to happen anyway, otherwise competitors won't be able to distinguish your shiny black Google-based netbook from your competitor's, so why not play it safe and homegrow your system, just in case Chrome evolves in some way that ceases to be in your interest? 

Another problem with the Chrome-as-invader concept is that browser's don't really do peripherals. What if you want to pull pictures off your digital camera with your netbook, or sync your iPhone to it? Then what? As ArsTechnica points out, it's possible "that [Google] has decided that people simply don't need much in the way of peripherals." As netbooks get burlier and faster, we're going to expect them to do more stuff, not less. Not to mention that Web-based operating systems — and this goes for all of them, not just Google — rely essentially on bookmarking to manage files and sites. And bookmarking, as much as you dress it with hi-res icons and window-drawers and panes, is still a crappy way to superintend your workflow.

Luckily for us, none of these Web OSs are going to make a dent in personal computing as we know it today; they'll be here, sure, but in ancillary contexts. (Microsoft, breathe easy.) That's because much of the gear market we get, as consumers, is nerd trickle-down. In the same way that our commercial planes use technology birthed at NASA, and our cars have transmissions whose forebears ran the Indy, our computers are commoditized versions of big boy tools used by engineering PhDs and developers. Tech companies build what they like. And there isn't a damn developer or engineer out there that would ever use a Chrome OS machine more than 10% of the time.

Don't believe me? Maybe I've been reductive in describing the chain of tech product development. An intermediary stop between the technorati and the common man is the corporate enterprise. Companies have had the opportunity to convert to thin client networks for the better part of two decades, and yet the chances are that wherever you work, you have an actual PC, not a dumbed down Web slave, sitting on your desk. That's because if, as Jason Kottke says, the end-user's definition of an "operating system" is "an interface between hardware and user," well, the Web is still a relatively crappy interface, regardless of the infrastructure problems I mention above.

Web apps like Gmail have made artful use of JavaScript to be more responsive and desktop-like than Web apps ever have; since JavaScript runs locally on your browser, it can detect your keystrokes (HTML can't) and it responds to your clicks quickly (HTML doesn't). But the use of WebKit browsers and prototype-based languages is only really good for building a simulacrum of the desktop experience, not a replacement. Their real point of leverage is universality, but universality is usually the last driver of innovation; only when someone owns an environment completely and can seriously monetize it does it get good.

Then there's the question of future hardware. As netbooks get faster chips and come packed with more hard-drive space and RAM, users are going to want them to become mobile versions of their primary PC: full of all their music, movies, photos and various formats of documents and presentations. Managing and manipulating all that junk is not a job for a browser; it's a job for more object-oriented OSes. Basing an entire suite of apps on Web languages is fine when the apps are extremely simple, as with the Palm Pre, whose webOS relies on JavaScript. But as Apple knows, if you intend your device to have any kind of heavy-lifting power down the road, you use a full-blown desktop OS. That's why the iPhone relies on applications written in Objective-C, the same language developers use to program for the Mac. In one respect, calling the Google Chrome OS a "game-changer" is a little bit like betting against the brains at Apple; based on the last 10 years of computing, that's not too prescient.

So what is Chrome OS? It's a very smart little niche player for devices that can't be categorized. Google probably knows that systems like Android will be best for smart devices like phones, netbooks and tablets, and that Mac OS, Windows and Linux are staying put in the desktop realm. But what about little oddities like computer kiosks in department stores, ticket claim machines at travel hubs, and other cheap, perfunctory Web-linked machines? That'll be where Chrome OS lives. Excited? Didn't think so.

Related: Google Drops a Bomb: Its Own Operating System