Chrome OS – Coming of Age

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

The computing world changed a lot with the advent of the first iPhone in 2007. Until that time, the dominant method of computing was using, well, computers. Desktops, laptops, Mac OS X, Windows. That’s what it meant to interact with technology, especially anything on the internet. Applications, installers, frameworks, filesystems, drivers, updates, antivirus programs. Complexity was an arguably unavoidable consequence of the gradual evolution of computers as they morphed from simple word processing platforms to multimedia / gaming / internet do-everything machines.

But with that ever-increasing complexity, something was lost. Computers could be operated by your average person, but to properly maintain that system required more expertise. And when something went wrong, it would require an even greater level of involvement to repair the complex operating system. So complex, in fact, that for many the solution to a slow computer wasn’t to repair it. The solution was to throw it out and get a new one.

Then the iPhone arrived. It was simple – many argued it was too simple – but it gave computing a reboot, so to speak. Apple had a penchant for simplifying the use of computers with Mac OS for decades, but it reinvented what “simple” and “user friendly” meant when it brought the iPhone to market. Apps became the new norm for what computing could become. While they were certainly analogous to the “applications” of computers, the new ‘apps’ abstracted the role of the operating system to simply a background container for the apps.

And for a time, it was good. But there was always something of a trade-off with iOS devices like the iPhone and the iPad (and other mobile operating systems like Android, WebOS, and Windows Phone). While the simplicity of these new mobile operating systems provided an arguably superior computer experience for most people, the one area where it fell short was in content creation. Could you use a smartphone or a tablet as a content creation device? In a pinch, sure. But it wasn’t really ideal.

There were keyboards to attach to tablets, of course, but they were always supplemental to the device – an added appendage to an otherwise self-contained and self-consistent design. The Surface and Surface Pro from Microsoft had a more unified approach to content creation than iOS or Android (although I still pine for the multitasking masterpiece that was the now-defunct WebOS). But in the end it was the same formula – an otherwise self-contained and complete mobile OS (Windows RT) paired with a keyboard from a laptop.

So, five paragraphs into this blog entry and still no mention of Chrome OS – what gives? It’s all in the setup, folks. Because to really understand what Chrome OS is, you have to put it in context of the two sides of the computing landscape:

  • Desktops and laptops: dedicated computing platforms geared towards limitless multitasking and context creation extraordinaire. The do-everything machine that sacrifices ease of use and simplicity for raw power and flexibility.
  • Tablets and smartphones: dedicated content consumption platforms that are so intuitive to use that even a baby can learn how to interact with one. These consumer-oriented devices trade flexibility and raw power for ease of use and simplicity.

Did you notice something about my descriptions – they’re polarizing, aren’t they? The strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other. And from a “blue ocean” target market approach, that’s ideal. But as we are now 7 years into smartphone and tablet adoption (that is quickly eclipsing desktop and laptop use), it’s really starting to become a saturated market – just ask Microsoft or Blackberry how easy it is to launch a competitive smartphone OS against the juggernauts of iOS and Android.

The question then becomes: is there another unexplored realm of computing we have yet to develop into the next mobile revolution? If there is, I don’t know what that would be (smart watches maybe?). But while an entirely new device category might be beyond our ability to predict, we can ask another question: is there a market segment between the mobile and desktop realms? NOW we can talk about Chrome OS – the use case sandwiched between the powerful content creating desktops/laptops and the easy and simple smartphones/tablets.

I have an admission to make. Until recently, I thought of Chrome OS as pretty much a joke. While I have been a regular Chrome browser user for years, Chrome OS seemed to take the idea too far, and in the process distracting Google from the far more popular and widely adopted Android operating system. Chrome is just a browser, and you can’t do nearly as much as you can with a mobile OS or desktop OS. Why would anyone want to use Chrome OS at all?

My change of opinion came from an unlikely source: Microsoft. No, it wasn’t because of Windows 8’s terrible reputation. It was because of Microsoft’s recent identity crisis, which has become an important topic of discussion with Satya Nadella recently taking the reigns as CEO. Microsoft used to be a software company. They licensed operating systems and applications. What started with the iPhone and Android soon began to eat away at Microsoft’s traditional business model. They tried to become a “devices and services” company with Ballmer’s “One Microsoft” initiative with the marriage of Windows with the Surface devices.

But the hope is that Nadella will simplify this even further to remove what has been argued to be a contentious and orthogonal strategy by ditching devices and sticking with services. It’s the services that Microsoft can offer that might be their last hope of staying relevant in a future that is becoming ever less-dependent on Windows and Office – Microsoft’s cash cows. And Microsoft will be competing against two other titans of services: Amazon and Google.

It’s in that competitive landscape – of services – that Chrome OS comes into focus as a viable new product category. The distinction between Chrome OS and Android isn’t easy to see, however. And frankly, there’s still a lot of overlap between the two that make the use cases for the respective operating systems not always mutually exclusive. But while the services offered will be similar in that they are both offered by Google, the earlier distinction of desktop/laptop vs. smartphone/tablet leaves Chrome OS in a vacant spot. It has the content creation focus of a traditional computer, but is also incredibly simple like a mobile device.

It’s the rise in prominence of the importance of services to the next big battles between the technology giants that makes Chrome OS suddenly become a genuinely useful platform. Without a useful suite of services and applications, Chrome OS just inhabits a novel form factor of mobile OS in a laptop/desktop shell. But when productivity, content creation capabilities, simplicity of use, and a host of cloud-based web services combine, I’d argue it is the perfect storm that demands a reevaluation of what Chrome OS can really provide.

Apple made it’s mark with the iPhone by starting from scratch and making a truly mobile OS that was a complete rethinking of how people used computers. It started from the ground level (before there was such a thing as an App Store!) and built upon itself to what we see today in iOS 7 with millions of apps, limited multitasking, and specific instances of content creation.

But what if you started from the other direction – take the content creating productivity machine that is the laptop or desktop and refine it until you have a simplified version of it? “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

That is the promise of Chrome OS. And until recently, it was a frustratingly limited promise. As long as you stayed within the services Google offered and web apps (which are a far cry from the rich ecosystem of ‘apps’ on mobile operating systems), you were fine. But if you wanted to do more than that, you hit a brick wall. Recently, however, those limits are beginning to dissolve away as the abstraction of services opens the door to a whole new category of possibilities.

Microsoft’s identity crisis and (hopeful) refocus on services to compete with Amazon and Google will allow it to steamroll over the traditional boundaries of specific apps, ecosystems, and “walled gardens” to be the fabric that connects all your devices and applications. Google is already well ahead of Microsoft in that realm, but competition and diversity of offerings is paramount for innovation to flourish.

With a Google Chromebook (on which I am writing this very blog entry), I can use – and am encouraged to use – the full suite of Google services: Gmail, Google Docs, etc. But very importantly, I can just as easily use Microsoft’s full suite of services: Outlook.com, Office web apps, etc. Thanks to the history of the Internet, the humble web browser was a great leveling force. While not always the most powerful or appropriate option for a given use case (web apps are seldom as optimized as native apps), they have one important feature above all else: they will run on anything with a web browser.

Sure, there are mobile browser-optimized web apps and desktop-optimized web apps. But they are all based on the same HTML, Javascript, PHP, etc frameworks that work across all devices. They are the ultimate in compatibility and ubiquity, despite their shortcomings in context specific optimizations. In the same manner that a services-first approach to computing abstracts the hardware, OS, and applications to deliver a unifying service, the browser embodies the same level of abstraction – one design paradigm to rule them all.

So in conclusion, Google might have hit the sweet spot now with Chrome OS by exploiting the market saturation of traditional computing and mobile devices, the emergence of diverse services-first approaches that eschew hardware and OS ecosystem limitations, and the unresolved best combination of the productivity of a desktop/laptop with the simplicity and ease of use of a smartphone/tablet. Google’s approach, more than any other in recent technology history, I think, exemplifies Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s maxim:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

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