It was the most Googley of propositions. The most successful company in the history of the internet said it would reinvent corporate computing by selling subscriptions to streamlined machines that moved all data and applications inside a web browser.
A year later, Google has adjusted this audacious pitch, bowing to the reality that the rest of the world hasn’t quite caught up to its vision of a future where desktop and notebook computers are merely ways of getting you onto the internet. With its latest Chrome OS machines, the company has introduced a new user interface that mimics a traditional operating system, taking the user outside the confines of the browser. And it’s no longer selling software-like subscriptions to these machines, moving to flat fees for hardware and technical support.
In some ways, this seems like a comedown. But it also shows that Google is intent on building a business around these machines — something that many pundits have questioned over the last year. When you also consider that Google has introduced a Chrome OS desktop machine, the Chromebox, alongside its Chromebook laptops, the proposition makes far more sense than it did 12 months ago.
Rajen Sheth, the man who oversees Google’s effort to push Chrome OS into schools and businesses, agrees that the second generation of machines show the company’s intent. But he also says that the overall vision for the operating system hasn’t changed.
“We very deeply believe in this vision,” he says, “and we’re doing a tremendous amount to make it happen.” The idea is to create a world where you can pick up any machine — old or new, yours or someone else’s — and instantly tap into all your existing data and applications. But Google also wants to simplify these machines — for the people who use them and for the companies that manage and support them.
In many ways, the new devices live up to the pitch. Equipped with solid-state drives, Chrome OS machines boot in seconds, and since you needn’t install local software, schools and businesses can certainly get them out to users quickly, and then update them with relative ease. But there are still ways that the device can make things more complicated.
After all, you can’t install software on a Chrome machine. And if you lose your internet connection, you still lose the ability to use most applications. Gmail now works offline. And Google Docs, the company’s document and spreadsheet app, lets you view files offline. But you can’t edit files offline. What’s more, even when you have a connection on a Chrome OS, your ability to move files from application to application is still quite limited.
That said, with the Chromebox, a machine designed to plug permanently into a network, the need for applications that operate offline is less of an issue. And according to Sheth, Google will soon introduce a version of Google Docs that lets you not only view documents when offline, but edit them as well.
The offline Google Docs will fill a big hole in the platform, and it’s a long time coming. It hasn’t arrived sooner, Sheth says, because, well, it’s not an easy problem to solve.
“It’s a complex problem because you tend to have multiple people collaborating on the same files,” he says. “What if I make a bunch of edits on an airplane [while offline] and then connect to the internet when I get to my hotel — especially if others have edited the document in the meantime? How do you merge in those changes?”
What’s more, Google must move some of the processing code from the web to the client machine. “We use the cloud for a lot of the processing, particularly on spreadsheets. We not only have to move this to the client side, but do this in a way that the application is still lightweight.”
Sheth says the company is already using its offline editor within the company, and intends to roll it out to the world at large over the next “several weeks.”
As Google’s Sundar Pichai told us last month, the company is also working to integrate Google Drive — its online file storage service — with Chrome OS. And according to Sheth, this will make it easier to move files between the device and web applications.
Google still isn’t saying how many businesses are using Chrome OS. But it does say that “hundreds” of schools across the U.S. and Europe are using the devices. Rajen Sheth is also the man who turned Gmail into a corporate services — he’s known as “the father of Google Apps” — and he says that Chrome OS is taking much the same path as his first baby.
“As with Google Apps, we’ve seen the best initial traction in education, especially with elementary schools,” Sheth says. “So many schools want to give computers to all of their students, but traditionally, the IT costs of doing that are high. Chromebooks let them buy devices for students without increasing their IT costs.”
How else will the platform evolve? Sheth does acknowledge that Google is reshaping the OS for use on devices with touch screens, but he says the company has no intention of putting it on tablets. Chrome OS may show up on touch-screen notebooks, but Google believes that touch-screen tablets — as well as smartphones — are best served by the company’s Android operating system.
In other words, there are still cases where local applications make more sense. The world may be moving to the web. But it’s not quite there yet.
Sheth acknowledges that it’s difficult for some people to wrap their head around a machine when all applications reside on the web. That’s why the company has added a traditional desktop interface to Chrome OS. “Web applications are actually more powerful than client applications that are typically on a desktop, but the mental lap has been a challenge for a lot of people,” he says. “[The new interface] helps them make that leap.”
Google’s aim hasn’t changed. But it’s still looking for the best way to get there.
Article source: http://feeds.wired.com/~r/wired/techbiz/~3/N-5NgMGlB64/