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Entelligence: Chrome OS, babies, and bathwater

Entelligence: Chrome OS, babies, and bathwater
Michael Gartenberg
Michael Gartenberg|November 20, 2009 3:14 PM
Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

In an age where products that have never been announced get coverage and even critiqued over rumored shipping delays, it's no surprise that Google received a lot of coverage this week with an update on its Chrome OS strategy. While not quite rumorware, it's a lot like the cloud it depends on: more vapor than substance.

I don't think Chrome would be a bad idea if it were something that was targeted to complement existing PC architectures. Why isn't it? If it's web-based, Chrome OS could and should co-exist with Mac OS, Linux and Windows. It's the idea that Google is promoting Chrome as a PC OS replacement for mobile devices and riding the netbook hype all at the same time that gets me, as does the fact that I need to get a new device to run Chrome OS. That's ridiculous, as are reference design requirements like SSDs instead of hard drives. Worse, trying to merge the PC and phone into some weird new intersection of devices is not what the market wants or has ever looked for. This type of specialized hardware sounds like it's going right into the 'tweener category and we know what happens to those devices. You just have to look how successful netbooks running Linux and Firefox have been to get a sense as to how well this concept is likely to go over with consumers.

It's not even a new idea. What was most amusing about the Chrome OS news today was that over a decade ago Marc Andreeson was frequently quoted saying Netscape would soon make Windows nothing more than a "poorly-debugged set of device drivers." Does that sound like a familiar concept? Yep, to me as well.

Perhaps some users do spend 99 percent of their time using the internet through a

I spend ten hours or more on a computer every day, so if Chrome OS isn't for me, then who is it for?

browser, as Google claims, and perhaps some users can do all their work that way. However, I know for sure I can't: although connectivity is important to many applications I use, browsers leave a lot to be desired, and desktop apps can far surpass them. For example, I think Twitter works better through a rich client applications like Tweetie than it does in the browser, and a lot of user data suggests that many people agree with me. Sure, you can argue that I'm not the target for Chrome OS, but that's a weak argument -- in fact, it's a cop out. To paraphrase Jean-Louis Gaseé, great ideas and products should be designed for both passengers and sailors, expert users and novices. I spend ten hours or more on a computer every day, so if Chrome OS isn't for me, then who is it for?

Now, I think PCs architectures have gotten too complex at the expense of functionality. I'd like to see things made simpler -- or, as Einstein said, as simple as possible and not simpler. But Chrome opts for simplicity at the expense of functionality, and even practicality: there's no way a platform that depends on a fast reliable, always-on network connection is going to be viable in 2010. Although Google's done some good stuff with Chrome OS, it's taking on Apple, Microsoft and the entire Linux community and trying to create a paradigm shift toward devices few users will want. It's good to throw out the bathwater and start over from time to time, but it's not such a good idea to let some babies go down the drain as well.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at gartenblog.net, and he can be emailed at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.
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