The development of the world wide web has been nothing short ofbreathtaking. Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, had a vision of a verybasic text system back in 1989. Little over 20 years later and the Webhas morphed into something he could never have imagined. Not only are weconsuming and sharing every media and file format under the sun, butthe ways in which we interact with the Web have changed dramatically. Wehave moved from merely browsing websites to interacting with rich webapplications to using all manner of Internet connected applications anddevices.
Enter Chrome OS
Google is betting on the its Chrome operating systemto revolutionize again how we interact with the web. For here is anoperating system that offers no real platform of its own, comes with nodevelopment environment and on which you will never see a port ofMicrosoft Office or Halo3. Instead it puts it faith solely in the onlineecosystem.
Reaction since it was unveiled late last year hasbeen generally negative. Former Google employee and Gmail creator PaulBuchheit thinks Chrome OS will “be killed (in 2011)”. The founder of theFree Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, worries about the ‘cloud’aspect of the OS stating:
I'd say the problem is inthe nature of the job ChromeOS is designed to do. Namely, encourage youto keep your data elsewhere, and do your computing elsewhere, instead ofdoing it in your own computer."
The only apps youwill ever use on Chrome OS will be applications deployed in the cloud,and ‘installing’ them will consist of little more than bookmarking aURL. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, thinks there is a little more to itthan 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
Whilstthe Web currently hosts some very impressive software, we have yet tosee a graphic editor to rival Photoshop, or anyone tackle video editing.If Chrome OS is to become a viable platform, and not crumble in theface of the more fully featured Android as Paul Buchheit thinks, it willneed to offer its users something more convincing than the currentgeneration of web applications. So what is Eric referring to?
Inall likelihood Google’s ‘Native Client’ technology. This allows nativecode to run in the Chrome browser without using a plugin. This meansexisting 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 thancasual web surfers.
Whilst Google’s stated goals for this projectare commendable, NaCI does seem to fly in the face of the Internetgiants support for ‘the open web’. The technology is open source, andGoogle is encouraging community involvement in the project, but it seemsto currently lack the broad browser support that would make it truly‘open’. It may find a home in niche web applications, just don’t expectto be running C++ in Internet Explorer anytime soon.
Google arecurrently being coy as to whether this new feature will be included inthe first release of Chrome OS, wary of being seen to go against openweb standards. It isn’t currently enabled in the latest release of theChrome web browser. Chief standards officer at Opera, Charles McCathieNevile, has already criticised the technology for going against theethos of the open web. Google’s engineering director has hinted it willbe included with the OS, stating that “Native Client is a very importantpart of our Chrome OS strategy.” but wouldn’t be drawn on timescales.Whilst Google deny being against open web standards it is difficult tosee how they can balance that ethos and give Chrome OS the tools itneeds to survive.
It would seem Googlewants you to build apps for the Web. Apple have succeeded with theiriPhone store, Google themselves have had a form of success with theirAndroid store. But will a generic ‘web store’ take off? What do usersactually get over and above websites? Native client might suggest someof the answers, but users will ultimately decide if this new technologywill have any influence at all.