Chrome OS, Not Android, is Google’s Future

on October 22, 2012
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Google recently updated their Chromebook offering and began running new commercials touting the new product. At $249 it is an aggressive price offering, however, the software by way of web apps will be the key. Although, we are not in a full HTML or browser based world for our key applications, I believe there is a good chance that someday we will be. In many of the scenarios I play out in my head about the future, Chrome and Chrome OS is more important to Google than Android.

There is a debate happening in the industry about whether or not we are heading toward a future where all computing takes place in the browser or where all computing takes place with native or installed software.

Today we download and install software or apps on our PCs, smart phones, tablets, and connected TVs. In the future this may not always be the case. It’s possible that in the future all of our software will run in the browser, not natively as an installed application. We call these applications “web apps.” In my opinion, in the future we won’t install apps we will access them.

A web app is an application that is used through a web browser instead of being downloaded and installed onto your PC or device. A web app has all the functionality of an installed application. The only major difference is that to use a web app you need to be connected to the Internet.

You may think that idea is crazy. We aren’t always connected to the Internet, so why would you want to use software that you can’t use when you’re not connected? That’s a good question. However, if you think about many of the things you use a computer for on a regular basis you will find that they require a connection: E-mail, Facebook, twitter, surfing the Internet, searching the Internet, web browsing, downloading, streaming, and a whole lot more all require the Internet. I’d be willing to bet that for most people, the Internet is involved in over 90% of the things they do with a PC.

But to be fair, most of us are used to what we call the hybrid experience; one in which we take advantage of Internet-based content when possible, while relying on local apps during the times we can’t connect via the various devices we might use in our daily lives.

I had an experience recently where the power went out where I live. This power outage affected a major power source for the cellular service provider data towers, so although I had cell service, I had no mobile data. Between having no mobile data and my power being off, which knocked out my DSL connection, I was literally without the Internet.

It was at that time I realized that without the Internet, my notebook was basically a paperweight. Of course that’s not completely true but everything I needed to do in that moment required the Internet. That experience got me to thinking about all the things I do regularly that require the Internet.

I came up with a list, and the only things I use my PC for that don’t require the Internet are writing, editing photos and making videos. And without the Internet, I can’t send or share my writing or photos or videos.

With that in mind, the argument which states that the Internet should not be required for us to use our computers doesn’t hold water. The reality for most of us is that the Internet is a critical part of our everyday experience with our computers.

This Is Where Chrome OS Comes In

Google recently launched Chromebooks in conjunction with Samsung and Acer. Chromebooks are essentially PCs but with the major difference being that Google’s Chrome browser is the only thing installed on the PC.

Google’s vision for Chromebooks is one similar to the one I described. This vision is where everything we do with our PCs happens inside the browser.

This future heavily depends on where the industry takes future versions of HTML and Javascript. As HTML and Javascript advance, we will be able to have more complex software run in our browsers. HTML and Javascript are the fundamental programming languages used to create web sites and web applications today. In this vision, they essentially become some of the most important programming languages in the future.

There is an interesting example currently based on HTML5 called MugTug. If you check out MugTug.com you will see a web app that lets you actually edit photos. All of this is done in the browser and takes advantage of HTML5. MugTug is a great example of a program as powerful as a native application, except that it runs in the browser.

Google has even taken this one step further, announcing recently that their Chrome browser is beta testing support for the C/C++ programming languages. C and C++ are some of the most common programming languages used to create native desktop and OS applications.

In Google’s announcement in their blog they state:

“Native Client allows C and C++ code to be seamlessly executed inside the browser with security restrictions similar to JavaScript. Native Client apps use Pepper, a set of interfaces that provide C and C++ bindings to the capabilities of HTML5. As a result, developers can now leverage their native code libraries and expertise to deliver portable, high performance web apps.”

This is another confirmation that Chrome OS may become a powerful alternate to a native operating system in the future.

Also there is something important with regard to this vision that I don’t see talked about much. Almost every developer we speak to, is simultaneously developing an iOS, Android, and HTML 5 web app at the same time. They believe it is more economical to do all that work up front then maintain over time. This means that at some point in time there will arguably be just as many web apps as native apps in every major app store. We will of course still need some way to discover these web apps, but over time someone will take a leadership stance in this area.

So Where Is Android In This Vision?

Android fits the model of native OS and native apps all needing to be downloaded and installed. Android also is more focused on mobile devices, not traditional PC form factors. However, in this vision I can imagine Chrome phones and Chrome tablets as an alternative to Android phones and Android tablets.

Part of the reason I bring up the longer-term vision for Chrome is because recently Android has come under quite a bit of legal scrutiny. Google is being sued quite heavily over patent violation claims against Android. Many people are watching this very closely because if Google loses these patent lawsuits, Android’s future comes into question. However, in the vision I am laying out, Android may be a shorter-term play for Google, which means even if they lose and Android loses partners, it doesn’t signal the nail in the coffin for Google.

One other point I’ll make on Android is that it’s not going away in the short term—if ever. There’s too much momentum in hardware, software and services that even if additional licensing costs become associated with Android, the vendors will still pay the costs to license Android. My main point is that in this browser-based computing future, Chrome OS presents the longer-term opportunity for Google and their hardware partners.

What interests me about Google’s Chrome browser and its evolution to Chrome OS as its used on things like Chromebooks is how the browser itself was built in a way to take advantage of all of the computer’s hardware. Specifically the browser can take advantage of things that normally only the operating system does, like the GPU and ports like the microphone, media card readers and USB ports.

It is because Chrome is architected this way that I can see it replacing a traditional OS in the future if all of our software moves to the web.

To use a Wayne Gretzky quote and slightly modify it: Android is where the puck is today. Chrome OS is where the puck is going.

Google is leading this effort with devices that take a clamshell notebook design, but in the near future I will not be surprised if we see Chrome devices in a tablet form factor.

Now to be honest, although I believe we are moving in this direction, I am not sure when this vision will become a reality. Many different pieces need to come together, including devices with persistent, reliable and affordable connections to the Internet.

Some times technology moves at the speed of light, and other times it moves very slowly. This is an area where I think it will move slowly, putting us at least five years away and most likely much longer.