Is Google about to jump the shark?


I just read the official announcement about Google Chrome OS, and while I can’t say I’m entirely surprised, considering how long the rumor mill has been talking about something like this, I have to say I’m a bit disappointed.

On paper, it sounds like a great idea. The first target for the OS is the netbook market, which has been a rapidly expanding portion of the total computer market. It hits all the buzzwords. Cloud computing? Check. Web based applications? Yup. But sometimes I think we – and by we, I mean those people who make their living on the ‘net, whether by supplying connectivity, web applications, development services, or some combination of these – have been sucked in by our own hype.

Here are the problems, as I see them:

  • Network dependence - While it’s true that Internet access is more ubiquitous every day, it’s not always on, everywhere, and it varies in quality from place to place and time to time. Application caching a la Google Gears helps with this, but in the end, a user’s data doesn’t truly “exist” apart from the cloud. Changes aren’t really changes until they sync back. There is a lot of underlying complexity to this, and while many systems (Apple’s MobileMe is one such system) do a good job of hiding it from the user, when a problem does arise, it can be maddening.
  • Latency - Javascript frameworks like SproutCore may do a great job of simulating that true application feel on the web, but when it comes time to request that the cloud performs some computation on an application’s behalf, packets have to be sent and received and that is not instant. This may be of more concern when it comes to particularly latency-sensitive applications like games, but in general, when users are running applications they expect them to feel responsive. Managing expectations – that is, getting the users to view web-based OS applications as “real” applications, yet still allow for the types of delays commonly experienced with web apps – will be a challenge. It’s subtle, but it’s a very real detractor from the user experience.
  • Upstream speeds - Most ISPs are focused on providing connection speeds that are great for consuming content. A web-based OS changes things. Now even grandma is a content producer, even if she isn’t encoding and uploading videos of her extreme dune jumping sessions.
  • Content production - Speaking of content producers, applications such as video editing, audio editing, and photo editing involve certain interface conventions that don’t translate well to the web, and end up being driven largely by Flash. Games are similar in this way. My concern is that what is originally being presented as a web-based OS will basically end up being just like any other OS, except the majority of applications will be Flash, and there will be no enforceable UI guidelines to create a consistent user experience. Not to mention, I don’t really like the idea of Flash becoming further entrenched as a preferred method of delivering web apps.
  • Netbooks - The netbook segment is quickly disappearing, as netbooks get larger screens and more powerful processors, there really isn’t anything separating them from regular notebooks. While Google may claim that the Chrome OS is going to be targeted at everything from netbooks to desktop PCs, I have a hard time imagining a world in which a web-based OS is a preference, as opposed to a concession. Admittedly, I am not the typical computer user, but I believe that the types of issues I raise above will more heavily impact users whose experience with computers is limited to web browsing, e-mailing, and word processing than those who have a better understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes.

Anyway, I’m happy to withhold judgment, since it’s possible that Google has some mind-blowing solutions to these problems that will leave me feeling rather foolish. Still, I remain skeptical. What are your thoughts?

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