Google’s idea of an operating system sounds pretty cool: Lightweight. Speedy. Secure. Web-centric. But while I’m sure Chrome OS will pick up some fans, I have a hard time seeing this as the way of the future for computing.
Never underestimate the power of developer tools
Both users and app developers are still hungry for so-called “native” applications—that is, software designed for a particular operating system. A prime example? The iPhone. At the 2007 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple discussed a “pretty sweet” way of developing apps for the iPhone: Web apps. While the Apple executives onstage spoke of the potential and power of Web apps, many developers and users groaned. They didn’t just want Web apps, they wanted real apps—apps that could take full advantage of the technology the iPhone offered. A year later, Apple released iPhone OS 2.0 and the App Store. The rest is history, as the App Store went on to be a massive success, and Apple’s Web app initiative a mere footnote by comparison.
You can do a lot with Web technologies: Write a letter. Work on a spreadsheet. Edit a photo. But there’s so much more you can do using the technologies in an operating system like Windows and Mac OS X. I have yet to meet a single Web app that I prefer over a well-done desktop client for that Web app or service. On my home Mac, I use Tweetie to post Twitter updates instead of the Twitter Web interface. I use iPhoto to manage my photos and upload them to Flickr, and iCal to view Google calendars. On my PC, I use Excel for spreadsheets, and Word for writing articles. Instead of Meebo for IM, I use Pidgin on Windows and iChat on Mac OS X.There isn’t a single Web app that provides me the power, flexibility, and usability that a traditional desktop app can provide.
It’s all about the user experience
Another issue is the matter of how each app behaves. Right now, I know how most WIndows and Mac apps will behave when I perform certain tasks. Both operating systems have various design conventions and standards for developers to build their apps to. In short, for the most part you know what to expect with a traditional desktop app. In time, Web apps may achieve this level of predictability, but as of right now Web app development is still in an experimentation phase.
Will the future be a hybrid?
I’ve had conversations with a friend about whether cloud computing will be the way of the future. Both of us agreed: It isn’t—at least not by itself. But we also agreed that the future of the OS will likely fall into some sort of middle-ground between the operating systems of old and a cloud-based OS. I’m talking about software that has a cloud-computing element and ties into online services, but is tailored for a specific OS.
The explosion of Twitter clients is a prime example. There a many to choose from, each with their own way of integrating with Twitter. Some have features you just can’t get with Twitter, such as direct tie-ins to services like TwitPic and TinyURL, as well as integrated shortened URL previews (so a you can catch a phishing attempt or scam hiding behind a shortened URL before you go to the site), various display options (font, text size, etc…), and the ability to monitor multiple Twitter feeds at once. These are things that Twitter itself doesn’t provide, and may never provide given its seemingly minimalist design ethic. But these are things you can get on a Twitter desktop client right now. Each of these apps are oriented around a specific online service (in this case, Twitter), but made with specific operating systems in mind, and they take advantage of the various features an OS can offer.
Another example of this is the current version of Apple’s iWork productivity suite. iWork ’09 is your typical productivity suite of a spreadsheet, presentation app, and word processor, though with the obligatory Apple twist. But it also integrates with Apple’s online iwork.com service, where you can share and view your iWork documents online for when you’re away from your computer. It doesn’t allow for editing documents online (yet), but it’s clear to me that this is the way of the future: full-fledged, native apps for when you’re at your computer, but with tight integration to online services, so when you’re away from your PC, you can still access your stuff. It’s the best of both worlds.
Don’t get me wrong, Chrome OS sounds intriguing, and it’ll be fun and interesting to watch it develop. And it will most certainly appeal to a subset of users. But I’ll have to see more—a lot more—from cloud computing to convince me that it’s the way forward.