Google says it has a vision of the future of software. And since Google is without doubt one of the most important and innovative computing vendors today, independent developers would do well to pay attention. The question is, which vision should we pay attention to?
The usual story casts Google and Microsoft as polar opposites: Microsoft, the lumbering, old-world behemoth of retail software, and Google, the young, agile champion of cloud computing. In a Google future, Web-based Google Apps would replace traditional office suites, databases, and messaging clients, while cloud storage and services would eliminate the need for on-premise data centers.
To this end, Google is developing Chrome OS, an operating system for netbooks and connected devices that is essentially a browser in a box. Chrome OS supports no locally installed software, and it uses the cloud for its primary storage. Developers who want to write software for these devices will be writing Web apps, pure and simple.
But Chrome OS isn't the only iron Google has in the fire. Android 3.0, previewed at a Google demo event this week, sees the search giant's smartphone OS blossoming into something more closely resembling a general-purpose computing platform -- including many features the Chrome OS folks told us we'd never need. In fact, if developers really want to write software "the Google way," my money's on Android, not Chrome OS.
Chrome OS: Your father's platform
Plenty of people have scoffed at Chrome OS before me, but there's nothing fundamentally wrong with running applications in a browser. Web apps work well for countless enterprises today, and certainly for SaaS providers such as Salesforce.com. The idea of browser in a box is hardly objectionable, either -- provided you take a very narrow view of the future of computing.
Chrome OS was conceived at a time when netbooks were the hot devices. The problem was that nobody really knew what a netbook should be. Were they just cheap, underpowered laptops, or were they something else? With Chrome OS, Google created a platform that skirted netbooks' limited processing capabilities by ditching the traditional desktop and making Web connectivity their most important trait.
The trouble is, increasingly the future of computing doesn't look like a netbook. Mobile browsers are already the preferred window to the Web for many users, particularly in Europe and Asia. Tablets are poised to flood the U.S. market beginning later this year. Some users are even browsing the Web using such oddball devices as TV set-top boxes or Amazon.com's Kindle. What all these devices have in common is that trying to shoehorn a traditional Web browser into them is like hammering the proverbial square peg into a round hole.