Saturday, December 18, 2010

ChromeOS---Finally Someone Gets It

Joe Wilcox and, via reference, MG Siegler, actually understand ChromeOS.  Wilcox writes about it in his blog post A week with Google’s Chrome OS laptop, Day 4: Who is the cloud for?.

Look, there are basically three (well, four) easy steps to grokking ChromeOS.

Step 0:  Most people use a browser for most things most of the time

At my own house, this has been obvious for years.  When I set up a Linux workstation in years gone by, I would install Firefox, Flash and that was about it.  They were ready to go.

Even at work for several years, most applications have been accessed via a web interface.  It's a huge advantage to just browse to a secured site rather than install and maintain a thick, or even thin, client.

And finally, I've been using Google Gmail and Apps (Documents, etc.) at work for years as well.  From any trustworthy computer and browser I can get to nearly everything at work that's important.  That was true even at the university.

Step 1:  For most folks, an OS is a liability

For most of us, the OS underlying the browser just brings trouble.  It's a place for viruses and worms to take hold, for cruft to build up until it crawls along so slowly that many people just give up and buy a new computer.   It requires constant help and repair and, in the best of cases, constant updating and vigilance to keep it safe and useable.

There are only a few computer professionals that really need, or think they have a good reason to need, an actual OS with all of the rights and priviledges thereof.

So, with ChromeOS, you just shave all of the OS overhead down to the minimum necessary to run Chrome, and that's it.  You still need the parts that talk to Wifi, card reader slots, USB ports for a camera and such, but there's a gigantically huge amount that you don't need.

The resulting system can then be reinforced and rearchitected to make it maximally secure.

In the ChromeOS world, you're using on-line apps.  They are updated constantly and invisibly to you.   You don't have to worry about the above problems and their related tasks.

Step 2:  You can work in the cloud

In this browser-only world, you keep all of your files on-line, in the cloud.  You don't have to worry about backups, installing apps, or lost data.  Your files are backed up, usually geographically distributed on a wide scale for redundancy, and easy to find.

It's true, relying on the cloud requires a level of trust.  We're used to having our stuff on our own computer and media.  Truthfully, though, most people do a bad job of managing and securing it.  The cloud is many times safer than what they currently do.

We've kept our personal finances, our money, in banks and financial institutions for all of my life.  Most corporations do, too.  Most businesses don't keep their money in a closet behind someone's desk.  For all practical purposes, the financial institutions are a cloud.  We're convinced that they take reasonable and appropriate security measures and that there are sufficient backups and failsafes in place.  And further, most of us continue to use and trust them even in the face of some recent reasons perhaps not to.

Step 3:  Then the rest of the apps

Okay, even if you admit that you can do your email, social networking, word processing, spreadsheets, etc., in the cloud, what about the heavy applications that just have to be run on a computer, i.e., that require a real OS?

In my experience, examples of these heavy apps fall into three categories.

  1. Media-heavy such as image- and video-editing.
  2. Graphics-heavy such as 3D games.
  3. Programming and development

With the advent of HTML5, all of these are possible to do in the browser.  There are earnest efforts to bring to market instances of the first two.  I've seen them.  Since last summer, I've done nearly 100% of my photo editing on-line in Picnik.  It actually works great!

Number three is the last hurdle and there are people hard at work on that one.  I've been thinking about it a lot myself, and I've done some experiments and even changed my daily work habits.  The only real thing I need other than a browser, really, is an xterm emulating a vt100 to access a Linux machine with Emacs, Python and some other tools.   If those can be moved out of the very old VT100 environment into a browser window, then I'm basically done.   Even I admit I'm not sure I'm ready to make that shift from 25 years of doing things a particular way, but I'm ready to give it a try.

One more final step is support for off-line caching so you don't have to skip a beat when you disconnected from the Internet for a while.

Once this is all done, the computer, whether it's a ChromeOS laptop or whatever, just doesn't matter.  You can close the lid and leave it on a table in a restaurant.  If someone else picks it up, if they don't know your password, they don't have your data.  But I can pick up another ChromeOS laptop, even borrow one from another person, log in, and pick right back up where I left off.  Secure, with all of my tools and data, ready to work.

This may be apple pie, but it's not blue sky.  Most of this technology is in place and it only needs to have the edges smoothed and polished.

See also: What does Chrome OS and Google notebook mean to you? by Andy Ihnatko in the Chicago Sun-Times.