Yesterday Google unveiled the Chrome Web Store. In a nutshell this is an App Store for the Chrome browser and a critical component in the upcoming Chrome OS. The Chrome browser is found on all major desktop operating systems, on the enormous numbers of Android phones and tablets, and the new TVs and set top boxes from companies like Sony, Logitech and reportedly the biggest of them all, Samsung. Chrome OS is a desktop operating system replacement designed to operate entirely in the cloud, using web technologies, with almost negligible startup times for the instant-on, always connected generation. Chrome touts automatic synchronisation of everything from bookmarks, to auto-fill info and passwords, and preferences.
How do regular people use computers?
I must first apologise for the use of the word “regular” to differentiate users here, but the truth is there are a very small number power users; people that are even remotely interested in how their operating system works and how it can be modified. We manually install software onto a computer because it provides a fast experience, utilising the full power of the machine. The other camp includes everyone else; using Office, the Web (Facebook, webmail), maybe intranet applications at work, and of course shopping and having fun at home. These camps do overlap, but the key point here is the latter camp is the vast majority, and we must always look at technology from their perspective in order to see the bigger shifts.
In a previous post regarding web technologies I proposed that nearly all applications would be web-based within 5 years, I’m an eternal optimist so any numbers I give always need seasoning with a pinch of salt. For a professional programmer or designer this is something really hard to swallow, and the “why a web app store” comments are already proliferating the twitter-sphere. I’m always observing how my group of friends use computers, some have more skill than others, but they rarely install desktop applications any more and would appear to prefer not to have to as they feel comfortable having already learned how to live in browser-land.
The word computer in the heading is a little outdated, it’s already clear to most that computers are, for the most part, being used in the form of mobile phones, tablets and other devices, not laptops and desktops. This is also key, the inevitable decline of the laptop and the desktop, those specialist and indirect machines, from the computing landscape.
Native and offline, the 90% rule
Traditionally we’ve had to install applications to specific operating systems to make use of certain features, certain hardware. One example would be the ability to write files or a database to disk, these might contain a user’s data from several sessions – this feature alone is the decider for a large percentage of mobile apps. Another might be to make use of the graphics card to display massive amounts of 3D polygons for a game. Finally I think notifications are worth mentioning. I’ve had issues with online messengers, twitter clients, apps that are buried in a tab, unable to do more than flash the title bar to let you know *something’s happening!*.
The change that’s occurring is that new web technologies are bringing some of these native-only features to web developers, through HTML5 and Flash, even for the problem of notifications. This means that instead of only being able to produce 50% of the apps you could on desktop, you can now produce 90% and growing.
I like to call this the 90% rule. The added bonus is that the other 10% is typically what our “power users” need, so in effect it’s pretty much 100% of what our “regular” users need. That’s the critical mass required to make the shift away from traditional desktop operating systems, onto something new with many new benefits.
There are potential pitfalls and challenges (security, limited connectivity), but also benefits associated with moving entirely to the cloud. I’d like to pick out a few key benefits over traditional computing models.
Fire, burglary, lost property, batteries a’sploding. In some cases you can lose all your devices in one foul swoop. You backup your computer right? I backup to Timemachine continually, I run a weekly secondary hard-drive backup, I use SVN for all my projects, and I use Dropbox with an encrypted DMG to make sure I always have some important information to hand. Regular computer users do not do this, then inevitably hard drives crash, drinks get spilled, I can’t even begin to count the number of times a non-geek, and even plenty of less paranoid geeks have simply lost everything bar the postage stamp sized photos they uploaded to Facebook. iTunes doesn’t let you re-download music anymore, you really have to back up. This was easier to deal with when people had physical backups, real photos, CDs, real letters, but it’s increasingly becoming an issue.
The immediate win here, admittedly at the cost of a trust relationship, comes from having all your stuff backed up by professionals with backups of their own across the globe. It would take a fairly major worldwide catastrophe before both the server and your local copies were destroyed.
Probably one of the original reasons apps started moving to web was that you can guarantee your users are all running the same version. From their perspective they don’t have to install anything, and they get updates and bug-fixes with zero effort. No checking for updates and waiting, no updater apps popping up every Wednesday because they changed the kerning in iTunes.
Migration Between Devices
With a great many devices at our disposal; the phones in our pockets, the tablet on the table, the laptop under the sofa, the PC in the back room, the TV in the living room and the watch on our wrist, we have so many overlapping choices in what we use to go online and do things. If each of these runs its own operating system, operates its own App Store, its own way of installing applications and games, having to pay for a copy of an app that only runs on one specific device you may lose or replace, we are simply limiting ourselves.
One of the things a unified web-based operating system does is turn upside-down the notion that you’re going to show someone that photo which is on your INSERT_DEVICE, instead you pick up any device and off you go. Ubiquitous computing, ultimate convenience.
This also makes sense when the inevitable happens, and that new shiny device comes out, you migrate to a new device. The experience on something like an Android phone can be pretty good, should you decide not to switch to another OS. You turn it on, enter your username and password, and all of your settings and apps are immediately re-downloaded. Apple provide a backup mechanism using a cable and desktop/laptop computer running a copy of iTunes (though that doesn’t solve the problem of a house fire where you lose both devices).
Chrome Web Store
Unfortunately Google have done the usual technology-driven thing and put out a rather functional experience for later finessing, rather than launching with a polished user experience as might another user-focused company, but it’s not too bad, certainly better than the Android market even in its present state.
So what do you think to Chrome Web Store and Chrome OS? Comments welcome as always.