Burning Chrome

Google made a few interesting announcements this week. First, Google Docs Viewer support for a sheaf of new document types, including Excel, Powerpoint, Photoshop and PostScript. Second, Chrome’s new ability to run background apps that run seamlessly and invisibly behind the browser. Third, they released Google Cloud Connect, which lets Windows users sync Office documents to Google Docs. They also announced the Android 3.0 SDK – but despite the ongoing tablet hysteria, in the long run, the first three are more important.

Little by little, iteration by iteration, the Chrome browser is quietly morphing into a full-fledged multitasking operating system in its own right. Oh, sure, technically it’s actually running on another OS, but you increasingly never need to launch anything else. View and edit documents in Google Docs, watch and listen to HTML5 video and audio, communicate via Gmail and its Google Voice plugin, use Google Docs as a file system – and the line between “Chrome OS” and “Chrome on any other OS” suddenly grows very fine.

Google’s long-term strategy seems to be to supplant Microsoft by first building the best browser, then making it easy to move your files to Google Docs … and finally, slowly but inexorably, making Windows and Office irrelevant. Obviously no one will abandon Microsoft products wholesale anytime soon; but as cloud computing grows more ubiquitous, Google steadily iterates feature after feature, and people grow accustomed to working in the browser, then one day, maybe only a couple of years from now, a whole lot of people – and businesses – will begin to think to themselves “Hey, we haven’t actually needed Windows or Office in months. Why do we even have them at all?”

The “network computer” dumb-terminal approach has failed many times before … but so did Six Degrees, Tribe.net, Friendster, and (eventually) MySpace, before Facebook came along. The original iMac was roundly criticized because it didn’t have a floppy drive, criticism that now sounds hilariously stupid. We might look back at the first Chrome OS notebook in much the same way. Of course, Chrome can’t actually compete with Windows until always-on broadband Internet access reaches the same level of reliability and ubiquity as electricity itself; but that’s only a matter of time. In the early days of electricity, every factory had its own power plant, and its managers would have been appalled by the notion of outsourcing that vital engine – but soon enough those inefficient installations were replaced by today’s electrical grid. Computing power is the new electricity, and cloud computing is the new grid.

Unlike most companies, when Google says “cloud”, they mean it. Compare Amazon’s cloud-computing service to Google’s. With the former, you essentially call up and configure one or more servers with the OS and specifications of your choice; but with Google’s App Engine, you don’t know anything about its hardware or operating system, because that no longer matters. It just runs the code you give it, and you don’t much care how. Similarly, Chrome is being built for a future where the ambient, omnipresent wireless Internet connects  everything from clothes to computers to cars (which explains how their self-driving cars fits into their strategy) and it doesn’t much matter what OS any given device is running.

I’ve criticized Google pretty harshly of late, but credit where it’s due: they still think bigger and further than anyone else. The problem is that all these brilliant strategies are predicated on their continued dominance of the search space, whose users are forever just a whim away from jumping ship to an alternative, and they’ve taken their eye off that ball of late. But at least they’ve finally started cracking down on search spam. It’s a start. Maybe they haven’t grown too bureaucratic and sclerotic to make the Chrome future happen after all.