A few weeks ago, Google announced that they would be entering the operating system market. While this wasn’t really a huge surprise to most people in the industry, it did come with a bit of a bombshell: Google Chrome OS will be the first “cloud operating system”. At this point, you may be wondering what on (Google) Earth does that mean? In a cloud computing environment, your applications and service are located in “the cloud” (i.e. The Internets) instead of being installed locally on your own machine. You probably use cloud applications every day. Some notable examples are Facebook, Gmail, and Flickr. There are many benefits to an operating system that fully harnesses the power of the cloud, which is exactly what Google sets out to do with Chrome OS.
Benefits of The Cloud
The benefits that Chrome will provide to the average computer user are immense, and many of these advantages are inherent features of any cloud operating system, not specifically Chrome OS.
First and foremost, cloud applications and services are available from any point in the cloud. You don’t have to be on your own computer to access your pictures on Flickr or your emails on Gmail. Anytime you have an internet connection, you have your data. Storing your data in the cloud also is likely to protect you from accidental data loss, as the companies providing these services would probably be better about making backups than you and I are. If I had a dollar for every time I accidentally deleted a whole bunch of personal pictures or documents that didn’t have backups, I probably wouldn’t need a job!
Another huge plus, is that all of the applications that run on Chrome OS will run on ANY operating system. Granted, Google will more than likely add touches that allow web applications to feel more like native applications (see Google Gears for starters). Web applications are operating system agnostic. They will run on any platform with a modern web browser.
Since your applications are on other systems across the Internet, Chrome will no longer require software to be installed. Software installation can easily be a big stumbling block for many aspiring computer users. Installing new applications will be as easy as bookmarking a website! (we all know how to do that by now, right?)
This brings us to one more huge benefit: your computer is no longer responsible for handling any of the processing required in application execution. Your computer only needs to be powerful enough to run a web browser with Flash and Java plugins. Any netbook is capable of this for the most part and they cost between $200-$300. Imagine a $200 computer being all you need ever again. That is especially important in the business world where the most commonly used applications already have cloud-based equivalents. For example, Google Docs offers word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations for free. No longer do you need to buy a bunch of fancy computers just to run MS Office (which is already expensive on its own). This could save lots of businesses lots of money if Chrome takes off.
A New(er) Business Model
In addition to creating a new operating system, Google presents a new model for making money in the software development industry. With the introduction of broadband internet, software piracy has gotten out of control. However, web applications are mostly immune to this threat since the software creator controls who can or cannot access each application, and can choose to charge a subscription fee for the service provided by their software. While this doesn’t mean much for companies like Mudbug Media, imagine if Microsoft moved the entire Office platform (and they will eventually, if they’re smart) into the cloud. The benefits would be immense! You won’t be able to pirate Office anymore. You can’t access it without a subscription. You can’t get a subscription without paying for one. The subscription business model is nearly flawless! Applications like Basecamp are already doing this. 37 Signals, creators of Basecamp, allow users to subscribe to their project management service for as long as they need. It’s not necessary to buy some big application suite that may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to manage your project. When the project is over and you don’t need the software anymore, you don’t pay for it. This model helps everyone, from small businesses struggling to control costs in a down economy, to software manufacturers who have a steady stream of income from their long-term users.
One question remains: Can Google beat Microsoft? I contend that they don’t need to. Google is creating a niche operating system, much like Apple has with Mac OSX. They will win over users that are looking for the benefits that Chrome offers. Windows and MacOS will still be the big boys in the short term, because native applications will still be very relevant. Cloud storage is cheap, but companies with large application suites that need a lot of processing power will be slow to move their applications into the cloud because of the high cost of processing data in the cloud (imagine running FinalCut or Photoshop from the cloud). I don’t think that Google is thinking about short term wins with Chrome though. They are envisioning a long term solution. As processing and storage become increasingly cheap, more products will move into the cloud, and Google is trying to stay ahead of the curve. It also bears mentioning that Chrome OS will be free and open source. This allows any other software company to crack open Chrome’s guts for ideas for their own operating systems. Apple has taken advantage of this before when they leveraged NetBSD and FreeBSD as the platform for Max OS X (which has worked out well for Apple it seems). Chrome’s existence is a win-win situation for everyone, and it will spur innovation just as many Google products have done before. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve got in store!