Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Chrome OS Breeds Metaphors and Debate

I’m going to do something I don’t often do on this blog and that is jump on the blogging band-wagon that is the discussion of the Google Chrome OS announced today. From MacWorld to the Washington Post, Google has clearly made an impact on the world with its announcement that it will be working on a new operating system that will largely be centralized around the web and Google’s web browser, Google Chrome. But one idea, that’s been fairly pervasive in the conversation: that file systems and other “onboard” applications might go away—seems to point to a new paradigm to computing, and it’s spawned a lot of metaphors in the discussion. It’s also wrong.

My favorite metaphor so far hails from Douglas Rushkoff at the Daily Beast. In his editorial he mentions that the current desktop regime that got its start in the late 70s and early 80s was a development akin to road-makers requiring new cars and car manufacturers requiring new roads. The hardware got faster, so the software got more bloated, so the hardware needed to be faster. On that point, I would have to agree. There’s no question in my mind that some software bloat is totally out-of-control as well as overpriced—so much so that I made a concerted effort to opt-out about a year ago. To this day, Adobe’s software is the only software on my Mac that regularly (and predictably) crashes and I can’t stand that I can’t find an alternative for Illustrator even when I’ve found a great alternative for Photoshop. However, I digress.

The software got more bloated and sloppy and especially-so among some camps but it didn’t have to. There was very little market pressure in the OS industry and that really just made for a feature-focused attitude (read: Vista), rather than a fine-tuning attitude. Snow Leopard (Apple’s latest Mac OS version) will actually decrease the memory footprint of the OS, as well as speed it up during wake up and shut down. So it’s not by necessity that software-makers let their software get bloated, it’s that the bloat stems from misplaced incentives. When your the dominant player in the market, the incentive is to use your economy-of-scale (read more coders) to out-pace the other guy in innovations and features, not clean house. Google won’t escape this incentive. People have already hinted that as the company as moved away from its core technological expertise (search!) the search results are not as good as they used to be.

But this positioning of Google Chrome as an OS, and it’s focus on the network, still overlooks the fact that people view their own media as valuable (and as property) and keeping all your photos on Flickr is not as good as sharing photos on Flickr while still having them in some file archive on a local machine. I would predict that’s never going to change.1 However, I also don’t think that the netbooks that Google Chrome will most likely end up on are any different than iphones (with the exception of being much, much less slick)—they’re not anyone’s first and only computer–they’re certainly not going to become the hub of the media center in a household. And just like with the iPhone and iPod, the model that naturally evolves is a cloud-desktop hybrid. There are layers of privacy to these sorts of hybrids and as people become more and more aware of threats to their media, they will want more protection. That means that some stuff, meant for my eyes only, stays on my computer, in my vault, while other material (like my twitter messages) gets pretty much permanently embedded online.2

I think the metaphor that best suits what will happen because of the Google Chrome OS is not really much of a metaphor at all. It will be a component in an iTunes-like world. I have my music (without DRM now) all on a personal machine. I can back that up. Occasionally, I allow some of it to be streamed to others in my office. I can move it up to an online back-up resource or I can move it to my iPod. (I even occasionally—with the permission of the artist—host a file for Blip.fm.) It’s not all in the cloud. It’s not all on the desktop. It is however rarely on only one device.3 Google wants to run software through the browser and that makes some sense. I think it will force software developers to re-consider their design strategies and worry more about reliability and speed and be more tentative about new features (though I hope they learn how to come out of a beta phase). But I don’t think that will at all change the fact that people will run want to run programs offline. I see no point in an online version Illustrator where I create my art (in utero) entirely online. I don’t want anyone looking at my work in its middle stages. I will want to store things locally and only locally and I don’t think Google plans to stop them.

  1. To understand why I predict that, ask yourself why the DRM dragon has largely been slayed. 

  2. That is to say, much like email, if I wanted to pull down all my twitter messages, I’m not sure that I could. There’s liable to be copies in lots of places. 

  3. Also, despite some “walled-garden” naysayers of Apple, iTunes has always played mp3s and there are lots and lots of places for my to buy music, other than on the iTunes store. 

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