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December 19, 2010

Chrome OS Is All About the Missing Features

Here's an interesting quote from Ted Power, a former designer for Google's mobile web apps:

"Chrome OS could potentially mark a profound leap forward. For the first time, all the layers between the network and the computer have been removed. The device itself is of little consequence; you can 'feel right at home' from any networked device. Chrome OS isn't so much about what has been added, but what has been stripped out; no more complicated file systems, software updates, etc."

Paul Buchheit, the ex-Googler who created Gmail, thinks that the ideal design of a computer that acts like a local node of a global super-computer matches the design target of Chrome OS. "It should be relatively cheap and reliable, secure (no viruses or anything), zero-administration (I don't want to be a sys-admin), easy to use, and fast." Paul says that Chrome OS is unnecessary because iOS and Android devices meet the same ideal and there are already millions of devices that run these operating systems.

There are already millions of people who use Chrome and some of them would like to buy a computer that's as fast as their browser. Mobile phones are not yet powerful enough to handle complex web apps, but that will change and, at some point, web apps will be indistinguishable from native apps. You'll be able to use your favorite web apps from almost any device, but why not use a device that removes everything that's unnecessary and slows you down?


  1. The key here is "at some point" web apps will be indistinguishable from native apps - but two things are required for that: a) processing power which is just around the corner, and b) ubiquitous high-speed mobile internet connectivity - this one is a few more years away...

  2. "Paul Buchheit, the ex-Googler who created Gmail, thinks that the ideal design of a computer that acts like a local node of a global super-computer matches the design target of Chrome OS"

    I don't think this is true. Android/iOS are local nodes to the global supercomuter that is the internet. Chrome OS isn't a node, rather a dumb terminal to the internet. A Chrome OS PC isn't intended to *do* anything: just access the central data

  3. “I think there’s a world market for about 5 computers.”
    (Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board, IBM, circa 1948)

    “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
    – Albert Einstein

    “In 2031, lawyers will be commonly a part of most development teams.”
    – Grady Booch

    Every mistake in the computer industry gets made at least 3 times: once by mainframe folks, once by minicomputer folks, and at least once by microprocessor folks.
    (John Mashey)

    There's a simple way to find out if an operating system has been well designed. When you get an error message, go to the help system and look up the exact words in that message to see if there was enough of a concept of an architecture that they have a consistent vocabulary to talk about what's broken. (Bill Joy)

  4. I have no problem with the concept of 'dumb terminal', 'thin client' or whatever the latest buzzword is at the time. I've spent 45+ years working with 'dumb terminals' and I can tell you that a lot of the usefulness depends on the interface between the user and the hardware. I won't give up a large keyboard and large screen.

    Most smartphone (and some laptop/netbook) keyboards are too small for my comfortable use. The small screens are also limiting - zooming to make text readable forces more scrolling. That's why I'm not a fan of EBooks - I can read faster and easier on paper.

    I also want some local storage - I'm not ready to trust EVERYTHING to the Cloud, partly for backup reasons and partly for privacy.

  5. “In 2031, lawyers will be commonly a part of most development teams.” - 2031? That's already true for 2011, for any company of any size & sense.

    And Anonymous forgot this one: “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Bill Gates said it c.1981 and Microsoft has been denying it ever since (silly, as the BBC has it on videotape).

  6. I have a cr48 on which I'm typing this comment. I have been using computers regularly since 1986. I've been my own sysadmin for a long time and I'm happy to let that go. Chrome has taken away the stuff that doesn't matter to me and gotten rid of many things I've always wanted to be free from.

    The thing that I don't have yet, but which is probably right around the corner, is cloud storage for my music. I hate listening to Pandora and the like. I would also like some way to play my local NPR station on it, but that's minor. Things are coming together.

    By the way, I get just as much done on this machine as I have on any other machine I"ve used over the past 24 years. I've been waiting to move full-time to the web and hear I am.

  7. There are some things - things that aren't going to go away - that are simply better to do natively. Removing them is a radical step that is perhaps necessary to the ongoing development of the network, but it doesn't produce something that is strictly superior for the average user who understands the choice. I could use Chrome OS... or I could use Chrome from within an existing operating system with a more mature UI into which my programs integrate more comfortably.

    Consider the problem of a media player. Through a browser, I can stream media from a cloud service (which exists in a hostile media environment and has to consume bandwidth from who-knows-how-far away), which, for the purposes of this exercise, is not down for scheduled or unscheduled maintenance. I've got to switch to that service's tab to control it, because, for necessary security purposes, it runs within a sandbox that can't see my play and pause buttons until I give it focus. It's consuming the overhead of the browser tab, which, due to the Javascript engine and the aforementioned sandbox, is not inconsiderable. When I do interact with it, it doesn't see my right mouse button, my local files, the state of my terminal (what media player worth its salt can't be configured to pause when I lock the screen?), or any number of other things that a native program can take advantage of.

    And if you add all the features of a full operating system to your browser, you necessarily introduce complexity, not all of which can be abstracted away. And there will be bugs as this power is introduced, both in the browser and in the applications meant to run within it.

    If you try to make the browser comparable to the operating system from the perspective of the end user, sooner or later you will end up reinventing Windows 95. And I feel confident in saying that nobody wants that.

    Though this might just be sour grapes. As a developer, the thought of having to work in Javascript for everything, of bending over backwards to try to mimic some of the indispensable low-level functionality of a native program, does not make me excited for this brave new future. All else being equal, shorter toolchains are better.

  8. Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
    Antoine de Saint-Exupery

  9. A year ago, Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, had already told that he liked to merge both projects (Chrome OS and Android) together, which would allow Google to focus on one single project. But Google has lately advocated Chrome OS, as ideal for business, due to lightweight requirements, tight security and constant updates.

  10. I 2nd what steeleweed says, "I also want some local storage - I'm not ready to trust EVERYTHING to the Cloud, partly for backup reasons and partly for privacy."

  11. Google Chrome is one option, however there will always be a risk with reliance on "the cloud".

    "The Cloud" of course feels all soft and billowy, but "the cloud" is a marketing term to make us all feel good about it. All the cloud is is the big ugly network, the internet, much of which is carried over copper wires, a bunch of servers and all the baggage that comes with it.

    The issue is network availability and privacy. If the network or servers are are not available or slow, or has been compromised in some way, then "the cloud" will be a deep color of gray for many people. Wonder how Gawker is feeling these days?

    If one persons hard disk or router fails, too bad for one person. The there are network availability or security problems, millions are affected.

  12. Neither Android nor iOS currently meet the standard of "cheap, reliable, secure, zero-administration". Nor are they likely to; both OS's are designed for platforms replete with costly hardware features, allow native code execution, are slow to patch and often in need of it, and support deep user configuration.

    Chrome OS's answer comes in the way of minimal (cheap) hardware requirements, no custom native code execution, a minimalist system design coupled with an innovative system-patching process, and minimal user configurability.

    Being unable to access the Internet does mean the devices become less useful - though to be fair, this also applies to the most common uses of desktop machines today. And Chrome OS will still support some basic offline usage.

    When Chrome OS devices become available for $30, IT admins will want this. User has a device problem? Replace it. Most employees don't really need anything more than email, web, and document editing.

    The "Cloud" approach has issues with privacy and availability, though to be fair, similar issues exist with many/most hand-rolled IT solutions. Security (which largely equates to privacy) and availability are hard to get right on a smaller scale.

    Beyond enterprise users, I could see this being used for: libraries, schools, waiting rooms, advertising freebies, your local coffee shop.

    Desktop machines aren't going anywhere either though -- not until a web app can provide the same level of functionality and performance as your native-running Photoshop, ProTools, or Team Fortress 2.

  13. Don't you people all know that there are going to be offline versions of Google Docs, GMail and all that?

  14. If DOS attacks can bring down major sites. whats stopping them from bringing down my access to the cloud?

  15. last anonymous. there was a virus that affected google many years ago basically it affected some ones computer and it sent random search query's to google. this severely bogged down google but because of there setup servers all over the place it did not hinder them i think they where receiving tens of thousands of search query's a second and where as they knew it was affecting them very badly most users did not notice a difference.

    also chrome os is not meant to replace your existing computers it is meant to be a netbook. a laptop that is constantly connected and does everything you need it to do when you cant reach your computer because you are on the road. the cr-48 uses very little power i have been actively using it for almost 48 hours well of course i slept but i have kept it unpluged for almost 48 hours now and it is now at 24% battery life.

    on top of all that there are web based vnc clients for chrome os that you can use to connect to your computer at home. so say you left that important document on your pc at home well just connect to it via vnc email it to yourself and you can open it with google docs and work on it on the road or if you used google docs from your home computer you dont even need to connect to your home computer just open up google docs and its right there.

    and as i said google has servers all over the place to allow people to connect to there servers faster. so when one server is down for maintence you can still access your stuff in the cloud cause its not the only server that your files are on.


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