2500 years ago, Europe was a filthy mess of dirt roads, battered and cracked by hooves in the summer and rutted by rude wheels in the winter. To travel from the British isles to the tip of the Apennine peninsula would have been the work of months — and messy and rough work at that. Around 450 BC, the Roman Twelve Tables specified (among many other things) the dimensions of roads, and methods borrowed from the Carthaginians standardized their construction to some extent. Mere centuries later, an unprecedented network of trade and communication had been established, some parts of which are still in use today. The Roman roads improved the entire world, and the fact that they were built, managed, and maintained by the Romans was as effective a weapon for Rome as the gladii wielded by the legions who patrolled them.
In the year MMIX Google revealed Chrome OS to the world. It was no more remarkable to onlookers than a single stone-paved road might have been to a Roman citizen in 400 BC. A decade or two from now, an historian might look back on the first few years of Google’s expansion and think: how similar was that Roman’s limited scope of observation to our own! For he saw a road, not the beginnings of an infrastructure which would span continents. And we see a suite of products, vessels for selling ads, not the start of a greater endeavor: a blueprint for connecting humanity in the 21st century.
I don’t mean to overstate Google’s importance. Just as the world was awaiting a Rome to civilize its mountains and valleys and connect their denizens, so now the world has been preparing for a Google to lay down the flagstones of a modern Appian Way.
All-purpose disclaimer: Now may be a good time to admit that I may have massaged reality somewhat to conform to my classical fantasy. Believe it or not, some allowances had to be made in directly equating Google with Imperial Rome. Furthermore, this is written from the point of view of a mere dabbler in the history of both subjects; feel free to correct me. Also, I want to note that I am not in the pay of Google. This was just an idea I had when Chrome OS was announced and thought I’d flesh out. But it’s all in good, thoughtful fun, so bear with me first and object later. Salt grain swallowed? Then let’s proceed. Oh, there’s an appendix.
Rome’s aims, once the project was well underway, were threefold. The roads allowed Rome’s military to move quickly and comfortably; her armies could move to her defense with rapidity, and strike or threaten any front without fear of leaving another long unfortified. The roads also allowed for trade caravans to move easily between areas of production and consumption, creating better distribution of risk and increasing wealth. Lastly, the roads were a symbol of Rome’s culture and sovereignty: wherever they were found, so too were found the rule of Rome’s law and the protection of her armies.
Do you see any resemblance to Google’s career and prospects? First, Google’s tools and access are its shining centurions. As the leader and standard in search, advertising, and a number of other fundamental areas, Google is able to wield itself like a weapon. And the more fundamental its access (i.e. webpage vs. browser vs. OS), the firmer its grip. Second, by unifying and simplifying the means of access to one another, Google increases commerce and elevates what we might call the “standard of living” of the web. Whatever the tradeoffs may be, the web is a much easier place in which to exist since Google built that particular road. Lastly, although we observe clearly (and increasingly) their pursuit of power and wealth, we should be generous enough to assume some magnanimity on Google’s part. They want to make not just the web, but the world a better place, at least as far as their definition of “better” goes: they want to make it, if you will, a Google Earth (take a groan break here). Not surprisingly, it’s a world with Google at the center of it, modern Moirae, watching and cutting the threads as it sees fit — but it’s also a world founded upon interconnectivity, elegance, and openness, the hallmarks of Google’s products.
The Roman Empire had several kinds of roads, divided roughly into three categories. They correspond nicely with Google’s positioning, and demonstrate its pervasion at every level of the tech world, just as Rome’s roads pervaded every feature of its territory. We’ll look at them in the order which best suits my point.
Viae rusticae, or secondary roads, were roads which already existed in some form before Rome arrived on the scene. These might be repaved or only lightly improved when integrated with the rest of the system, but they were what you might call the local thoroughfares. These are much like Google’s most well-known services: Google search, GMail, Apps, Reader, Android, and so on. Now, to be sure, email was certainly doing just fine before Google started up their own version, along with search, RSS, and so on. Sun, Microsoft, and Apple already laid these roads down. But Google approached them from the imperial, integrative perspective, and these roads, isolated and limited in their original forms, were made into tendrils of a larger system.
Whether Google really improved on the individual service or not doesn’t really matter, because the real improvement they brought was themselves. Google Reader doesn’t seem materially better than, say, Newsfire. GMail, for example, is convenient but lacks features standard in Outlook for years (the exceptions to this rule, Navigation for instance, are pleasant but neither revolutionary nor common). So it’s not that they leapfrogged the competition; the Romans didn’t unnecessarily tear down existing roads just to build new ones. They came, they saw, they integrated. “It may not look much different than it did yesterday,” a Roman Consul might have said at the time, “but today your road leads to Rome.”
Viae vicinales were the capillaries between the arterials of viae rusticae. These small roads were often private ones originally, and once brought into the Roman fold, lent a level of pervasiveness or completeness to the system that even the mighty road-builders could not hope to have achieved on their own. These are Google’s Labs and market experiments. Google Books, Checkout, Sketchup, Knol: not full-scale replacements for services used by everyone, but just big enough that Google can say “we do that” just as a Roman could say “we go there.” Who knows which hamlet might prosper and grow? — and who knows which might suddenly revolt? A good road is the best preparation for either eventuality. And it implies to those on the frontier that their town cannot be insulated from Rome — either from its armies or its auspices.
Of course, Rome isn’t famous for going around labeling and resurfacing existing roads. But it was necessary to do so, for the system they planned wouldn’t be complete without them. And, until recently, that’s pretty much all Google was doing. As much as I enjoy GMail, I would never suggest it changed the world. Why should it? Changing the world wasn’t on the agenda — not then, at least.
Viae publicae were the roads Rome built, and which in turn built Rome. Fashioned according to a rigorous standard (borrowed from the Carthaginians) which ensured usability, longevity, and replicability, these were the highways of empire. Their direction, construction, and maintenance were overseen by censors, senators, and, during Augustus’ reign, the emperor himself. This high level of superintendence was established because these roads weren’t just to make the farmers’ cart rides easier; they were to be the foundation for a world-spanning civilization that they saw lasting, well, forever. The fact that it failed to do so has not escaped my attention, but that’s for later. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the roads are still here.
Chrome OS was announced quite a while back, and at the time the response was deafening and confused. “Will it change everything? Will it change anything?” I suggested waiting until we saw it before drawing any conclusions, and now we have. And here’s my conclusion: Chrome OS is Google’s first via publica.
Once again, I want to stress that I’m not putting Chrome OS on a pedestal. This isn’t me slobbering over what is clearly a simple and very straightforward OS made for everyday tasks, and which actually looks inadequate for most of what I do. And it’s not me saying Google is a beautiful thing we should all admire and praise. I’m saying that Google, which up to now has been satisfied with laying rambling country roads and tinkering with decaying byways, is about to start laying down asphalt by the mile. And it’s going to change things.
The OS itself, it has been remarked, is no great shakes. Some people think it will be slow, some think it will be limiting, and some think it looks fine. The quality of this pre-release software, however, is not the issue (think Android 1.0 vs. 2.0). And really, its positioning in the OS market isn’t, either; it’ll affect the success of other OSes, but Chrome OS will do exactly what Google wants it to, and they’re happy to maintain it for as long as it takes. As proof, witness the sleeping giant, Android. A year ago, everyone thought it’d be a bit player. Two years from now, half the people in the country will own or have owned an Android device. Like Android, Chrome OS will start slow, get better, and pick up steam. This road may not look like much at first, but, if you’ll pardon my pun, Chrome won’t be built in a day.
Here’s the thing: Google has said that Chrome OS will run on Google-branded hardware. Now, the open source Chromium bit will certainly be compiled to run on a few other devices, but what we’re going to see is a more extreme version of the current Android device market. Viz. a tripartite, tiered offering:
Hackers will be welcome to put Chrome OS on this or that device, and companies like Asus will put it on nice little netbooks (instead of Android, thank god). But the star of the show will be Google’s first-party devices, whatever they are; chances are they’ll be dirt cheap, dead sexy, and extremely capable. Openness will remain, but the choice to use their devices will be made increasingly easier. And as they lower the bar for adoption, they raise the floor for quality.
We’ve lost track of our metaphor; let us return. Rome improved the viae rusticae, they mapped the via vicinales, and then laid down the highways, making the the disparate roads into a single system. Likewise, first you went to Google. Then Google came to you. And soon it won’t matter, because Google will be everything under the sun if it has its way.
Apple best embodies this approach (“all things to all users”), but their we-know-best approach and expensive hardware (along with some questionable decisions in the 80s) have limited their piece of the pie. Microsoft is like a lumbering beast, rarely misplacing a step, but unable to turn quickly or defend itself against nimble assailants (except to squish or buy them). “Mainstream” Linux, having failed to achieve any traction in the consumer market during these tumultuous times, is unlikely to do so in the future. Google can step in, vertically integrated, with usability and trustworthiness oozing from the seams, and say, “Behold: our hardware, running our OS, providing our many services, able to do 95% of everything you want to do, and it costs less than an iPod.”
And what will happen? Well — they’ll hardly sell any! Everyone already has a computer that does everything they need. But the point of Chrome OS isn’t to sell computers just yet, it’s to create an indivisible unit — the monad of the computing world. It’s hard to overstate how important such a unit will be, and it’s hard to say anything but “be patient” when its marketability is questioned. I said they’d hardly sell any — but at first what were the roads of Rome built for? After a road’s completion, it doubtless laid nearly unused for some time before the import of such a feature was understood by the region. Google’s roads started out empty, but parallel to other roads. Traffic gradually shifted over from the others. And this is the biggest road Google ever made, because it connects all the others. It’s just a matter of time before the chariots start rumbling down it by the thousand.
An interesting flaw in the metaphor here is that Rome never really had to compete with anybody in their road-building, since they were more or less the first. Google’s in a different situation here, and the result is that Google will have a harder time of it, but the user wins out. After all, if the monad provides a certain level of functionality for what we can guess will be a seriously competitive price, then the rest of the computing world will have to match that. As was mentioned, Google has been content to sit by the sidelines and offer itself up, but now they’re actively encroaching on enemy territory; what they did to GPS makers, they’re going to do to everyone else.
This Google monad sets a standard; it is Google’s Twelve Tables. The idea of what constitutes a computer is changing, and Google is striking at the critical moment. It gets to define what the New computer is, because it’s put in place so many of the systems the New computer will use. Google’s foresight becomes clear now; it was always looking toward this future, when it would take this step. Whether it would be successful in building the platform was not clear from the start, but now it’s beyond question. Google’s been loading the boats, and now it’s ready to cross that Rubicon.
Okay, I own that the classical references are getting out of hand. But you have to admit the Latin puns are pretty good so far.
Did I overstate it earlier when I called Chrome OS a blueprint for connecting humanity in the 21st century? Almost certainly. But it represents the first major divergence from traditional connectivity in this century. Since the internet was established, devices and OSes have been designed to accommodate it, but as the internet has grown to become the primary connective medium for the entire world, accommodation is no longer satisfactory. Our modes and media are limited by fundamental design choices in the devices into which they’ve been so rudely squeezed. It’s a square peg/round hole situation.
Chrome OS, by contrast, is designed around the web so completely that it should be considered not child of Vista, OS X, and others, but rather the first ancestor of OSes to come. Chrome OS is the sapiens to their neanderthalensis. It would be as wrong to say that modern humans descended from Neanderthals as from geckos, and in a few decades it will be as wrong to say that whatever the hell we’re using then descended from Windows. It’s a new branch of the phylotechnic tree.
To put it more succinctly: it’s not that the apple fell far from the tree. The apple is a pear.
Now let me temper my hyperbole a bit. I’m comparing OSes to primitive humans, for god’s sake.
As you may be aware, the Roman empire did not last forever. It was brought down by hubris, nepotism, decadence, and lead. Google’s downfall will be a little bit different, though considerably more rapid; things move a bit faster these days.
Yes, I think Chrome OS will be the via publica that joins Google’s many pieces into a truly powerful whole. And the next age basically be a playground for Google, and everything will be strange and new as they were when the predecessors of our current OSes were created. Microsoft wasn’t always a lumbering beast; back around 3.1 and 95, Windows was unfamiliar and revolutionary at least to the eyes of many consumers. Now the traditional OS is bloated and stagnant — Google has no need to dramatically put it out of its misery. Progress will see to that, as it saw to DOS (ah, I miss DOS), and Chrome OS will simply be the carefully groomed successor.
I suppose I’m positing the death of Microsoft, which is going to be a drawn out process if it happens at all. But I think we can all agree that though Microsoft and Windows will remain, they will be progressively more marginalized. Once Google lays its road down, it has nothing to lose and everything (everything of Microsoft’s, that is) to gain. Don’t worry, Microsoft, you’ve got a good decade yet.
And Google will tread that path too, maybe 15 years from now. The way things are accelerating, miniaturizing, and converging, the New computer will become obsolete faster than the old one. Has not that always been the case? Google will wear the laurel for a brief, bright period — a transitional period, because as fast as things are changing now, we have nothing left but a succession of transitions. No company can survive long in that, even one which brought about the change it is enduring.
Like the Republic, Google Earth is a fantasy. If we’re going to live in Google’s world, it won’t be for long. Just as the Vandals harried and eventually sacked Rome, so will Google fall to what passes for barbarians in 2020 or so. I’m already so far out on a limb here that I don’t dare speculate what those might be, but doubtless they will exist if history repeats itself — which it does, I am told.
After its death, Chrome OS will live on to guide the next generation, just as the viae publicae persist to this day. In ten years, you’re as likely to be riding a chariot as you are to be running Chrome OS, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have left its mark. The past informs the present, and the present conceives the future. Windows 7 and OS X still bear the identifying features of extinct OSes — some code here, a UI element there — and it’s for the best, since people fear the truly new and unfamiliar. Google’s work is here to stay, as is Microsoft’s, Apple’s, Sun’s, and everyone else along the way. Don’t be sad, it’s a circle of life thing.
To conclude (at last), let me say that this little exercise in free association and self-indulgence, while original (or the next best thing: long), doesn’t really say anything new. The tech world, like the rest of the world, moves in cycles. There are small cycles like the yearly “innovation” that keeps us buying products, and there are large cycles, like the move from computers as tools to computers as universal companions. We’re always in the middle of an unknowable number of these cycles, but I thought this one was particularly worthwhile to note. It’s a big change we’re about to witness, and we should be happy to be a part of it. Google is laying the stones for a fundamentally different period of computing and connectivity, though Chrome OS is admittedly a humble beginning. We must try to transcend our role in this — that is to say, the role of a blinkered and skeptical Roman citizen who sees only slaves putting rocks in a row, and instead see it for what it is: the foundation for a mighty empire.