The big news over the past 24 hours is the announcement of Google Chrome OS. Effectively Google Chrome OS is a stripped down Linux Kernel with just enough to boot Chrome/WebKit as it’s main UI. The exact UI paradigm hasn’t been reveled as of yet. Google claims:
Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS. We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start-up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web. And as we did for the Google Chrome browser, we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work.
It’s an interesting and somewhat bold statement.
Trusting The Grid
I’m personally not into pushing computing too much onto the web, and suspect that while general consumers don’t mind it, most who work in technology, share my distrust. The internet is rather resilient, but it’s hardly flawless. Very few ISP’s guarantee uptime for anyone but corporate customers who pay dearly for that guarantee. Sure offline support is on the way thanks to HTML5 and Google Gears, but it’s not a true substitute for local data and applications as online applications generally feel crippled when they are offline.
Cloud Computing is also at its infancy and not showing the uptime most expect. Even Google can’t seem to keep Gmail up enough to keep complaints to a minimum. If anyone has the capacity to do so it’s them. I think that’s more a sign of the state of technology than a reflection of Google. Some may note search has higher reliability, but search is a different beast. Search is a lookup against generic data. You can bounce users to different clusters with nobody knowing anything. Gmail replicates your data in multiple places, but not every server in every data center they own. That’s why most outages effect a percentage of users.
I’m even more skeptical of the security of online applications. Besides the obvious question of who can access your data on any given website, do they even need to notify you of a breach? Are warrants needed for law enforcement to browse around? Who really owns it? What happens if the website’s operator goes out of business, are they required to give you a chance to get your data out? Can they sell it to someone else? There doesn’t seem to be any real consensus as most countries laws don’t really account for digital property and electronic privacy. We’re still years away from knowing how rights in the physical world extend into the digital age, if at all.
As I’ve discussed before that controlling your own data is still important.
Regarding the claims of minimizing security risks. One thing folks like Bruce Schneier (Wikipedia bio) keep saying like a broken record is that attacks will always improve, and there is no such thing as perfect security. I know I’m the minority for believing the pro’s rather than the marketing. Just take a look at the work of Marc Weber Tobias if you believe security can be perfect (long article + videos, but well worth it).
Sure desktops are prone to viruses, malware, etc. However you can drastically reduce your risk by simply running an AntiVirus and using a modern browser. You can further reduce your risk by keeping backups which are dead simple to do with modern OS’s or with one of the many backup utilities out there. If you have a Mac with 10.5 you already have Time Machine, just need to plug-in an external hard drive. Despite scary stories, there are actually pretty few instances of data being stolen from a personal computer by someone who didn’t have direct access to it (such as an ex, or a coworker).
This isn’t a new concept. Most recently Palm’s webOS is based on essentially the same concept, except webOS is targeting handhelds. In fact webOS runs WebKit as well. Don’t be surprised if Palm tries to retool webOS a little bit and bring back the Palm Foleo idea. I should note webOS seems to be well liked by users.
Some will also note that before Apple released its native SDK it was trying to do the same thing with the iPhone, though Apple never quite integrated WebKit’s UI into the OS instead preferring to just launch Safari.
There’s also the CrunchPad an interesting but yet to be released product Michael Arrington is behind.
There have also been several attempts at running a browser-based desktop environment, which effectively turns your computer and browser into a terminal. This concept never really caught on due to performance and limitations in what the technology could do.
Even Google acknowledges that this overlaps on Android a little bit. Personally I think this is a little bit of a blow to Android. If I can use web technologies and target desktops, Netbooks and all modern smart phones, why would I really want to bother with Android’s sandboxed environment? If it’s good enough for a Netbook experience, I would suspect it’s good enough for a phone experience, which has always been even more scaled down. This doesn’t make Android irrelevant, but it means anything that runs on Android will likely run on Palm’s webOS or Apple’s iPhone OS.
There are some perks to Google’s Chrome OS regardless of its actual success in the market. First of all anything that drives innovation (as this will) is a win. Secondly Google’s announcement now is because it needs to start working in a more public way with the open source community. Even if Chrome OS goes nowhere, the benefits of Google’s engineers contributing enhancements and fixes to open source projects will live on.
Lastly, Google Chrome OS is putting a lot of faith in HTML5, and that’s seemingly good for everyone who wants to see the internet evolve and mature.
I’m skeptical of putting everything in the cloud. Security breaches are inevitable and building larger honeypots just makes it more tempting. While Google is a reputable and stable company, there are companies out there who don’t really care about safeguarding data and may disappear tomorrow without any notice taking your data with it. This is why I still prefer to control my own data. That requires a little more than what this OS is likely going to deliver.
That said, I’m hopeful that the Google’s push to make the web the ultimate SDK will pay off and benefit everyone. Google’s contributions to open source will also benefit everyone using it directly or indirectly.
I suspect it will have a tough time competing, especially if Apple releases a Netbook or Tablet utilizing what they’ve learned from the MacBook Air and iPhone. Apple is rumored to have a tablet in the works, though that rumor has surfaced several times over the past 8 or 9 years.