The development of the world wide web has been nothing short of breathtaking. Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, had a vision of a very basic text system back in 1989. Little over 20 years later and the Web has morphed into something he could never have imagined. Not only are we consuming and sharing every media and file format under the sun, but the ways in which we interact with the Web have changed dramatically. We have moved from merely browsing websites to interacting with rich web applications to using all manner of Internet connected applications and devices. 

Enter Chrome OS

Google is betting on the its Chrome operating system to revolutionize again how we interact with the web. For here is an operating system that offers no real platform of its own, comes with no development environment and on which you will never see a port of Microsoft Office or Halo3. Instead it puts it faith solely in the online ecosystem.

Reaction since it was unveiled late last year has been generally negative. Former Google employee and Gmail creator Paul Buchheit thinks Chrome OS will “be killed (in 2011)”. The founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, worries about the ‘cloud’ aspect of the OS stating:

I'd say the problem is in the nature of the job ChromeOS is designed to do. Namely, encourage you to keep your data elsewhere, and do your computing elsewhere, instead of doing it in your own computer."

The only apps you will ever use on Chrome OS will be applications deployed in the cloud, and ‘installing’ them will consist of little more than bookmarking a URL. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, thinks there is a little more to it than that:

it is now finally possible to build the kind of powerful apps that you take for granted on a PC on top of a browser platform”

Editor's Note: Check out more coverage of Chrome OS

What Makes It Stand Out

Whilst the Web currently hosts some very impressive software, we have yet to see a graphic editor to rival Photoshop, or anyone tackle video editing. If Chrome OS is to become a viable platform, and not crumble in the face of the more fully featured Android as Paul Buchheit thinks, it will need to offer its users something more convincing than the current generation of web applications. So what is Eric referring to?

In all likelihood Google’s ‘Native Client’ technology. This allows native code to run in the Chrome browser without using a plugin. This means existing C or C++ code can be used to enhance more traditional web apps. In effect it facilitates the creation of the kind of ‘super web apps’ Chrome OS will need if it is to be taken seriously by anyone other than casual web surfers.

Whilst Google’s stated goals for this project are commendable, NaCI does seem to fly in the face of the Internet giants support for ‘the open web’. The technology is open source, and Google is encouraging community involvement in the project, but it seems to currently lack the broad browser support that would make it truly ‘open’. It may find a home in niche web applications, just don’t expect to be running C++ in Internet Explorer anytime soon.

Google are currently being coy as to whether this new feature will be included in the first release of Chrome OS, wary of being seen to go against open web standards. It isn’t currently enabled in the latest release of the Chrome web browser. Chief standards officer at Opera, Charles McCathie Nevile, has already criticised the technology for going against the ethos of the open web. Google’s engineering director has hinted it will be included with the OS, stating that “Native Client is a very important part of our Chrome OS strategy.” but wouldn’t be drawn on timescales. Whilst Google deny being against open web standards it is difficult to see how they can balance that ethos and give Chrome OS the tools it needs to survive.

Final Thoughts

It would seem Google wants you to build apps for the Web. Apple have succeeded with their iPhone store, Google themselves have had a form of success with their Android store. But will a generic ‘web store’ take off? What do users actually get over and above websites? Native client might suggest some of the answers, but users will ultimately decide if this new technology will have any influence at all.