What Google Needs for the Chrome OS To Succeed

Google made an announcement! It was an OS, in case you haven't heard. But it was also something else: a long-term, high-risk bet about the future of the internet. Here's what Google needs to happen for Chrome to make it.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about Chrome OS 1.0. You can build that now and (maybe) install it on your netbook, and should be able to buy on hardware next year. All that stuff is, to borrow a word that Google loves to misuse, is a beta. A test. A trial. A first step toward a larger vision, which Google has been hinting at since they branched out from search: In the future, we will live on the internet. We'll be able to do all the things we do on computers now, and probably more, while connected to the cloud. And it'll be great.

Chrome OS is an explicit step towards making this happen, but the version we saw today is just an early, broad step. Google even said so! Despite early talk about how Chrome OS could be a full replacement OS one day, suitable for regular ol' laptops and desktops, today's preannouncement of a version strictly for netbooks included an admission that it would only be intended as a secondary OS. So, what does Google need to see this thing through, and make Chrome as capable as the OSes we're used to using now? Lots:

The Internet Needs to Get Way, Way Faster

And I'm not just talking about higher bandwidth. Broadband connections are pretty quick nowadays, but compared to reading—and especially writing—data to a hard drive, sending bits over the internet is excruciatingly slow. And Chrome OS isn't even really a true web OS: it'll slurp the guts of larger web applications like Gmail and Gcal and effectively make them local, meaning that the kinds of tasks that require low latency and fast load times will run tolerably.

That kind of local storage, along with Javascript technologies like AJAX, is a salve. We need them because communicating with a server for every event in an application would take forever, and make using them miserable. Remember how webmail used to be, before it got all AJAXy? Awful. And it still would be, if not for recent Javascript advances and local storage.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with making web apps local, and Chrome OS will keep doing that forever: it's the only way Chrome OS can work offline. But that doesn't cover everything. What about high-bandwidth tasks like photo and video editing? To do it the way they suggest would require constant syncing between local memory and a remote server. These are basic tasks for a computer. Basic tasks that'll be impossible on Chrome until super-low-latency, 100mbps+ broadband is commonplace, and not only commonplace, but wireless and effectively ubiquitous. That's quite a few years away, even by generous estimates.

Web Apps Will Need To Get Much Better

I'm sure Gmail, Google Reader and Google Calendar will be totally swell in Chrome OS. They're some of the most feature-complete web apps in the world, and they're good enough to replace desktop apps for most people. But what about VoIP apps? Torrent clients? Media players? Image editors? Video editors? There are web apps for almost all of these things, but collectively, they amount to a big bag of dick. Trimming videos with YouTube's tools is nothing like editing them in Final Cut, or even iMovie. Cropping a few images in an online photo editor and playing with their contrast is fine, but what about my bloated Sony RAW files? There are still some massive gaps in the web app world, hence Google's repeated, vague pleas for developers to do better, alright?

Web Standards Will Have To Evolve, Fast

Google wants to replace regular apps with web apps by making web apps more like native apps, in concept and execution. Eventually, the hope is that they could use the new features of HTML5, like local storage, drag and drop, canvas drawing, native animation and location awareness, to have all the powers of a native app. Thing is, HTML5 is just a stepping stone; it'll take more than a few new HTML tags to pave the way for honestly native-seeming applications.

Google's obviously got a lot of leverage over standards bodies like the WHATWG and W3C, so they could help move new HTML capabilities along in theory. But even HTML5 is brand new, and very few people are using that. It'll be at least another generation before developers will be able to code native-equivalent apps in web languages, and that's assuming that standards development keeps heading in that direction. Which it might not.

Someone's Going to Have To Solve the UI Problem

Talking about Chrome OS's interface almost seems like a waste of breath, since your real UI is the internet, which is the very definition of inconsistent. Part of the reason email apps, Twitter apps IM clients, and the like are still so popular is because they offer services that people want in an interface that's consistent with the rest of their system. Web apps offer no such thing.

Sure, if all you use are Google products, you're fine: Your life is blue, white, boxy and clean. But what about when you want to jump over to Meebo? Or Aviary? This kind of inconsistency wouldn't be acceptable in another OS, so it would feel like a compromise here. I suppose you could use tools like Greasemonkey to reformat pages on the client side, but this is hacky and, well, lots of work. We'd need some kind of framework for skins, or something, to make the experience more uniform.

People Will Have To Give Up On Owning Media, an Get Comfortable With Subscription Services

People need their music and videos, and now, most people have collections. That's sooooooo 2009, am I right? For Chrome OS to work, people are going to have warm up to subscription services and streaming media.

Before you get mad at me, forget about Rhapsody and Napster, and think more about your cable company, your wireless company, or your beloved Netflix. Those work, and these kinds of arrangements are going to have to be extended to all media. Which is possible, but also fraught, since you really won't own your media.

The Rest of the (Browser) World Has To Be Onboard

During the announcement, Google made the point that the Chrome browser in Chrome OS won't have any special talents that Chrome elsewhere won't, and that at present it's no more able—in terms of what kinds of web apps it can run—than, say, Firefox. Nobody's going to want to write web apps just for Chrome (that would make them Chrome apps, right?), so it's vital that other browsers support the same new HTML standards that Chrome needs to succeed. Google can go all out supporting the latest, greatest web standards, but unless everyone else does too, nobody—not even Google—is going to write for them.

None of these things are impossible; in fact, most of them sort of feel inevitable, given that they're all just extrapolations of obvious trends from the last few years. They're just optimistic, and sit well in the future. Chrome OS can carry out Google's LET'S ALL LIVE ON THE INTERNET vision when the conditions are right, eventually. But these are long-term bets, measured in years.

That might make sense to a room full of Google engineers. To the rest of us, though? It's abstract. It's strange. It seems gimped. It's largely irrelevant, and it's not all that exciting. Yet.