Google just announced that their new Chrome OS based laptops (built by hardware companies like Acer and Samsung), will run only a web browser and all your apps will be on the web. It’s not a new idea. In the 90s, Sun Microsystems declared that the “network is the computer”. They turned out to be right in some ways, such as enterprise, back-office applications, and the rise of web-based email. They were a little ahead of their time, and it took a while until Internet broadband and mobile devices made a “cloud” based data strategy viable. We’re getting there. I just don’t think we are quite there yet.
Googles’ is an interesting strategy, and their slick promotional video sells the idea by pointing out that the device is not really a computer – it’s basically a portal to the web, where all your stuff is stored. If you toss it into a river, you don’t lose your data. They also claim you don’t need to ever update it, since it updates itself automatically over the web (which most modern OSes do anyway). These are all true, but unless *any* app that a user accesses works perfectly online, Chrome OS users are in a frustrating experience. Ever filled in a big web form, only to hit the submit button and realize you went offline in the process, and then when you hit the back button in your browser, all your work is gone?
I do like the idea of cloud-based apps and use many myself, but I’m still not sold on the “everything can run in a browser” attitude, at least not today. In fact, as the task specific iOS and Android apps have proven, web-based apps are often limited in various ways and a “native” experience is better. Web browser’s need a lot more work, and while I haven’t seen Chrome OS in action, until I do, I won’t be convinced it’s ready to stand in for a competent full OS.
Finally, I’m also not sure most users are ready for the idea that all of their personal data is out there on the web, in a sort “trust me” type relationship. A lot of tech companies (Google included) have some PR work to do to convince people that their personal data is safe.
So getting back to Sun Microsystems – whatever happened to them? Don’t know? That might be a cautionary note for Google.