Chrome OS Harkens to the Days of the Driveless Desktop

I'm not the first to say this, but the idea behind Google's forthcoming Chrome OS reminds me of the Network Computer (NC), a driveless desktop unveiled by Larry Ellison in 1996. Back then, here's what I wrote about NC: "Do you really want to do without a floppy, hard, or CD-ROM drive? Be unable to compute -- or even access your data -- when the server goes down? Watch performance slow to a crawl during peak hours? An Internet appliance has everyman appeal at first glance; but on closer inspection, it's two steps back to those bad old mainframe days when Big Brother owned the computer, not you."

[ InfoWorld's Neil McAllister offers a razor-sharp analysis of Google's OS in his Fatal Exception blog. ]

Now, 13 years later, Google has raised a similar proposition: an OS that pretty much dictates that you'll be living your computing life on the Internet and storing your data and preferences there, too. So let's break down that hoary old critique of mine and see if it still applies.

First of all, when I knocked the NC for lacking local storage, I was referring mainly to performance. At the time, 28.8bps modems were typical and putting personal storage at the end of such a slender connection seemed like a really bad idea. Now, some Chrome OS computers will have solid-state drives or hard disks, and some may only have a cache (who knows?), but it doesn't matter much. You'll be computing in the cloud. Broadband plus a fast JavaScript engine equals good enough performance, so score one for Google.

Now we come to the part about being unable to compute or access your data when the "server" goes down. (It could be the "server" or it could be the connection, but whatever.) Well, I imagine some implementation of Google Gears will be included, so you'll have some limited offline access to data. But more to the point, I can't remember the last time my work or home broadband connections went down and Google doesn't have outages. So Google gets another two points.

The reference to "peak hours" is a legacy of the days when mainframes or "online services" would choke on too many simultaneous users. But I believe in the magic of Google's hyperscalable server cloud, so I have to give 'em another one.

Which leads us to the final "Big Brother," point. Google is already the gatekeeper of the Internet; should it also be the keeper of your data? It does seem to be time to trot out the old cliche about absolute power corrupting absolutely. At the very least, I can't imagine enterprises ceding their data to Google (the SLAs on Google Apps, for example, aren't exactly business class).

But a near-zero-config thin client, with all my data and preference available from any Chrome OS device, is an awfully appealing idea. And if I had my choice, who would I want to play host? Oracle? Microsoft? IBM?

Well, I'm not ready to hand over the entire casket of family jewels to Google, either. But the technical hurdles to a modern-day NC have largely been vaulted, and HTML 5 and CSS 3 should enable desktop-class apps in the browser. The fact that I'm even considering what data I might or might not "give up" -- and that a simple announcement implying no new groundbreaking technology has caused such an avalanche of speculation -- is testament to the power of the Google brand. Should it be any more powerful than it is?

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