Thursday, July 09, 2009

OS Wars: what the tech pundits missed about Google Chrome OS

It's hard to tell which generated more bullshit over the last 24-48 hours: Karl Rove's deposition before the House Judiciary Committee, or the tech industry media reaction to Google's Chrome OS announcement. Rove can pile it on high and deep, but tech media sure is doing its best to create more hot air than Michael Jackson's postmortem circus.

For those of you who aren't geeks, Google announced Wednesday that it was working on an operating system. It's going to be built upon open source software and target "people who spend most of their time on the web," with the intent to allow these users rapid access to the internet and be minimally invasive.

Since Google's announcement, nearly all analyses produced by tech media pundits have concentrated on whether the new OS is the beginning of a cage match to the death between Google and Microsoft, or a skirmish for smart phone dominance between Google and Apple, or whether Google is simply bent on taking over the world.

Bollocks. While indulging their obsessive need for competitive conflict, the pundits neglected three important issues which may drive the development of Google Chrome OS.

Africa and other third world markets

Cell phone use on the African continent has exploded over the last handful of years, from 62 million in 2004, to 152 million in 2006, to 250 million in late 2008. This kind of growth -- the world's highest rate of growth in cell phone use -- offers enormous opportunity for Google to deploy new search products, and for Africans to leapfrog past PC-based technology. Google recently announced programs on the continent of Africa including one which allows cell phone users to use SMS text messages to search for information without having to browse the internet. A smart phone is not required, meaning substantially lower costs to the user. This kind of service establishes a relationship with a market not familiar with the Google we know via the internet and our PCs; these users may adopt other Google products more readily as more services and connectivity become available to them.

Globally, the installed base of cell phones to PCs exceeded 1.5-to-1 three years ago, with more people accessing the internet by phone at that time than by PC; Africa's ratio is much higher, at 6-to-1. Given these facts and the size of the third world market, combined with the lack of infrastructure necessary for PC and broadband dispersion, it makes perfect sense for Google to target the market for both cell phones and small, low-cost wireless devices. Granted, the Googlers say the Chrome OS is currently targeted at web users on netbooks and PCs while Google's Android focuses on cell phones; at some point there will be a convergence between these products because users will expect comparable applications and performance on any communication device.

Google Wave

Speaking of communication, a sea change in communications technology is possible with the anticipated release later this year of Google Wave to a full production environment. For non-techie readers: it's difficult to explain how much of a change Google Wave may pose without resorting to a bunch of tech-speak. I highly recommend investing the time to watch Google's recent preview video to see what I mean, keeping in mind you'll be watching some very excited geeks who are passionate about the Google Wave product. If you don't have the time to invest, let me say that the platform will make communication a more fluid, participatory series of inter-connected events rather than static bundles of information we transfer back and forth to each other. A series of waves, as compared to collections of particles as it were, resorting to a still-geeky physics analogy.

My blogging confrère Dave Pollard says Google Wave is the wikification of communication; I can see his point, that communication will be bundled into related topics like a wiki while the chronological path to obtain information from communication can be readily followed. But for many of us who aren't geeks, we will see Google Wave as interactive and social; the sorting and locating of information contained in our communication will be a bonus rather than key to our use of this technology.

So what does this mean? More of us will be moving away from desktop applications like email clients, choosing to communicate from within a browser. Many of us are already doing it with Facebook and MySpace and other social media; we use them as portals to browse our friends' blogs and share our photos, videos and music, using the native chat and message features rather than separate email services or instant messaging applications. Google Wave will wrap all of that into a bundle along with real time sharing of content, having opened the application to developers who will likely build extensions for our favorite social media applications so they are seamlessly woven into our overall communications.

No, Google Chrome OS is not forgotten -- because this lightweight OS may let us access our waves of communication faster. What if getting to your email/chat/social media was as fast as it is to turn on your phone? How will that change your internet usage, your searches, your purchasing decisions?

Emerging technology

Here's another opportunity to confound the non-techie with geek speak; I'm going to spare you and ask that you watch yet another video, this one shorter and perhaps even more mindblowing than the Google Wave video. The video provides an overview of what I personally believe will be the next most disruptive technology after Google Wave -- a personal wireless device with the equivalent of a heads-up display. If you saw the movie Minority Report and remember Tom Cruise's character "surfing" through information on a transparent display with no surface hovering in air, you'll be close. Except this technology is not limited to an office environment; this technology follows you because it is your cell phone, your PDA, your network appliance.

Seriously, watch the video; it features MIT's Pattie Maes presenting the work researcher/developer Pranav Mistry led to develop this concept. You'll see at one point this so-called "Sixth Sense" technology allows the user to scan products on shelves for information in order to make purchasing decisions.

And Google is already there. Or rather, the technology which Google released for the purposes of scanning collections of books and finding a particular bit of information in or related to those books neatly fits at the point where the "Sixth Sense" leaves off. The same technology would need little to become a warehouse of information about any product, which may explain why's CEO Jeff Bezos is in a dither he won't discuss in detail. As uncomfortable as some of us feel about Walmart's business practices and their approach to radio-frequency identification (RFID), Walmart may have unwittingly aided and abetted the next steps to pervasive product information by demanding their suppliers move towards RFID tied to uniform product descriptions. Google's indexing and search might make short work of the product information in a new online store of content, perhaps integrating stores already established by others like

Now imagine shopping in any store while wearing this new communications device, connected to home at the same time, accessing both people and information fluidly.

The concept is still nebulous, but it's right there if you connect the dots: a light OS which allows a rapid link to the internet, with a communications tool which is seamless and social, one that offers up all information we want on the fly without the encumbrance of anything larger than a cell phone-like device.

Perhaps a Chrome device, one which might be only 24 months away. Wonder what kind of hot air the pundits will generate then?

G Wave is sneaking up on everyone, I think. I suspect that in five years we'll wonder how we did anything before it, but right now it's awfully quiet. Fun to watch.
Rayne, I follow you on Twitter. I just downloaded Chrome browser. I like it.

This is an interesting post. When I have a block of time, I'd like to watch the lengthy Google Wave video in its entirety.

I love all this tech evolution/revolution. Bring it on, Google!

Mary (@SoMerryB on Twitter)
Hey Chuck, Mary, nice to see you both, thanks for stopping by.

Can't wait to see what shakes loose once this really disruptive technology is unleashed. Going to be one heckuva ride!
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