Forget the CR-48: Google is best at the cutting edge

The results are in, and the overwhelming verdict when it comes to Google's Chrome OS is: "Why?" I lost track of the number of reviewers who pointed out that anybody can recreate the Chrome OS experience by simply maximizing a Chrome browser window.

The biggest question is how it's taken Google so long to produce Chrome OS: Two years for a version of Linux with a browser sitting on top of it? I could pay a competent Linux developer to come up with something similar in the space of a day. That's not an exaggeration.

Yes, Google has developed an app store, but surely that's part of the Chrome browser project?

When considering Chrome OS and Android side-by-side, I began to wonder if Google isn't facing a Mac v. Lisa moment, just like Apple in the early 1980s.

The Apple Lisa computer project was to be the future of Apple. It was a business machine that would introduce the world to the graphical user interface (GUI). As it got ready for release, a skunk works project began to create the Mac. Well, the rest is history (I'm typing this on a Mac, and not a Lisa). The definitive history of this period is given by Andy Hertzfeld, via his Website and great book, Revolution in the Valley.

The Chrome OS and Android are by no means in an identical situation, but there are similarities. Lisa was an attempt to shoehorn an innovative GUI environment into a desktop PC. In contrast, the Mac defined its own niche with clever product design. It wasn't a computer as anybody knew it.

Part of the reason Android is proving so successful is because it was created for new hardware platforms, smartphones and tablets. People don't know what to expect from new platforms, so just about anything is possible, More importantly, Android can grow organically with the platform and respond to user needs.

In contrast, Chrome OS consists of Google's services retrofitted to an existing computer platform: a notebook/laptop hybrid, in the case of the CR-48.

There are strict expectations of what we expect from a traditional computer. That is to say we expect a static (that is, non-cloud) Windows-like environment; anything less and we feel cheated in a peculiar way. Chrome OS could be the most functional OS in the world but if it's not what we're used to, then it would struggle to get beyond these preconceptions.

Because of this, I can't see how Chrome OS can be a winner, unless Google somehow creates an entirely new type of computer for it. My prediction is that within a year or two the Chrome OS will be another Google cast-off, like Wave or Buzz (Sorry if that isn't a cast-off...yet.).

Google's best attack vector for the desktop is the Chrome browser, which is essentially a Trojan horse that can get onto virtually every existing desktop, laptop, and netbook out there. This is the best way of encouraging users to move to the cloud, where Google can get access to all that lovely user-generated data.

Google should be finding ways to give manufacturers an incentive to include the Chrome browser on their netbooks and notebooks. A branding and sticker scheme along the lines of Intel Inside could work very well here: "Google Inside?"

Just like with phones and tablets, Google's future success beyond search is going to be defined by spotting nascent technology and providing software to run it. For example, if it isn't already, Google should be looking at smart watches -- essentially smartphones in wristwatch format.

And I'm surprised it hasn't got a foothold yet in the area of media devices. A music and video player built around the YouTube experience would be a sure-fire hit among young people, and might finally provide some revenue via YouTube. But where's the Google in-car GPS unit, eBook reader, or TV set-top box? Even a foray into digital cameras could benefit Google, giving it access to all that data it needs to power its business model.

At moments like this it seems that Google is a particularly young company, determined to feel around in the dark rather than turn on the light switch and see things as they actually are.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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