On Tuesday I attended Google’s Chrome update event in San Francisco. There were three topics on the agenda: Chrome, the Chrome Web Store, and ChromeOS. I’m not going to try to go over all the specifics of each topic. It’s a pointless exercise when Engadget, PC Magazine, etc are also at the event and live blogging/tweeting. I’m just going to give some perspectives that I haven’t seen in the reporting thus far.
The Chrome team has the velocity lead in the browser wars. It seems like everytime I turn around Chrome is getting better along a number of dimensions. I also have to say, that I love the Chrome videos and comic books.
Chrome Web Store
So Chrome has an app store, but the apps are websites. If you accept Google’s stats, there are 120M Chrome users worldwide, many of them outside the US, and all of them are potential customers of the Chrome Web Store, giving it a reach comparable to or beyond existing mobile app stores. The thing that we’ve learned about app stores is that they fill up with junk fast. So while the purpose of the Web Store is to solve the app discover problem (which I agree is a real problem for normal people), we know that down that path lie dragons.
The other question that I have is will people pay to use apps which are just plain web apps? Developers, especially content developers, are looking for ways to make money from their work, and the Chrome Web Store gives them a channel. The question is, will people pay?
The idea behind ChromeOS is simple. Browser as operating system. Applications are web applications. Technically there are some interesting ideas.
The boot loader is in ROM and uses crypto to ensure that only verified images can be booted (the CR-48 has a jailbreak switch to get around this, but real hardware probably won’t). It’s the right thing to do, and Google can do it because they are launching a new platform. Is it a differentiator, maybe if you are a CIO, or a geek, but to the average person this won’t mean much.
Synchronization is built in. You can unbox a ChromeOS device, enter your Google login credentials and have everything synced up with your Google stuff. Of course, if you haven’t drunk the Google ecosystem Cool-Aid, then this won’t help you very much. It’s still interesting because it shows what a totally internet dependent device might be like. Whatever one might say, Android isn’t that, iOS isn’t that, and Windows, OS X, and Linux aren’t that. When I worked at Sun, I had access to Sun-Ray’s, but the Sun Ray experience was nowhere as good as what I saw yesterday.
There’s also some pragmatism there. Google is working with Citrix on an HTML5 version of Citrix’s receiver, which would allow access to Enterprise Applications. There are already HTML VNC’s and so forth. The Google presenter said that they have had an unexpectedly large amount of interest from CIO’s. Actually, that’s what led to the Citrix partnership.
Google is piloting ChromeOS on an actual device, dubbed CR-48 (Chromium isotope 48). CR-48 is not for sale, and it’s not final production hardware. It’s a beta testing platform for ChromeOS. Apparently Inventec (ah, brings back my Newton days) has made 60,000 devices. Some of those are in use by Googlers, and Google is going to make them available to qualified early adopters via a pilot program. The most interesting part of the specs are 8 hours of battery life, 8 days of standby time, and a built in Verizon 3G modem with a basic amount of data and a buy what you need for overages.
At the end of the presentation, Google CEO Eric Schmidt came out to make some remarks. That alone is interesting, because getting Schmidt there signals that this is a serious effort. I was more interested in the substance of his remarks. Schmidt acknowledged that in many ways, ChromeOS is not a new idea, harking back (at least) to the days of the Sun/Oracle Network Computer in the late 90′s. In computing timing matters a huge amount. The Network Computer idea has been around for a while, Schmidt claimed, but it’s only in this day, that we have all of the technology pieces needed to bring it to fruition, the last of the pieces being a version of the web platform that is powerful enough to be decent application platform. It’s going to be interesting to see whether all the pieces truly have arrived, or whether we need a few more technology cycles.