Google's value proposition for Chrome OS: Should we feel insulted?

Let's be absolutely honest and straightforward about this right up front: Google Chrome OS is not an operating system. It's a device, like the iPhone, only that Google wants to license its specifications to OEMs. Any OEM that builds it is making a Chrome device, whose profile will be so low that it could probably never be switched out to run Windows, even XP. Probably great connectivity, but not enough solid-state storage to manage local documents or store many media files.

More than an Android device, less than a Windows device.

Any amount of SSD storage does not come cheap, though, so a Chrome device will not be a cheap netbook. But it will not be a PC, and that fact alone should tell the market that it will not compete against Windows -- not really. Instead, Google's play appears to be in the narrow field of subsidized connectivity devices that aren't meant to be used as highly portable PCs.

And who exactly is that? Not anyone who makes ample use of her digital camera, not anyone who collects music or videos (even legally), not anyone who makes DVDs of his home movies, not anyone who uses a printer for anything besides a screen dump, and not anyone who plays a game whose depth of graphics exceeds Frogger circa 1979 or whose interactivity with other players goes beyond Club Penguin. At the same time, this ideal customer must be willing to keep her documents online, her personal profiles online, each and every transported photograph online.

The difference between private and public in this world is that "private" starts out with "public" as its base, with layers of protection to obscure it. Security through obscurity -- a method that has never worked yet, not once.

Scott Fulton On Point badge (200 px)There comes a point in the evolution of almost every computer company of respectable size when it toys with the idea of being able to channel the entirety of computer users through a device or mechanism or program of its own design. And for a while, their ideas actually show some progress and bear some fruit -- e.g., MS-DOS, Windows, and to some extent the iPhone.

But even then, history has shown that customers have only been willing to invest in devices or software that refrains from limiting their choices, whose clear and unequivocal benefits can be demonstrated, and where gains from making the choice and taking the leap are quantifiable and guaranteed. In every instance in history, that guarantee has come from a solid, underlying, pre-established platform.

Consumers do not take well to being cattle-prodded into pre-established purchasing channels on the promise of future value. Invest now, reap later, is a value proposition that has never worked for any type of technology, at any time in history.

Here's what Google thinks about you, the potential Chrome OS user, from the company's launch video last Thursday:

If you're like me, you spend something like, I don't know, 90% of your time on the Internet in a browser -- there's e-mails, chatting, you're reading news, you're watching videos, you're playing games, you're buying things, just to name a few. Which kinda makes the Web browser the most important program on your computer...If everything's stored on the Internet, then your phone, your computer, all of these devices, are what people call stateless. Which is kind of a big word.

Maybe you caught the hidden message behind all that: Google thinks you're unemployed. You're illiterate, you don't know the difference between a Web browser and a spreadsheet, and you spend 90% of your online time doing nothing that earns you a living -- Google either implied all that or said it explicitly. And as if to drum home the point, in the little cartoon, a speaking bubble next to a productivity icon on the desktop reads, "Nobody clicks me anymore."

I know when I've been insulted, and I know when you've been insulted. If you're indeed unfortunate enough to be among the 10% of our brethren who are unemployed, then I would imagine you are spending 90% or more of your online time working hard to rectify that situation. If I were to make the same presumptions about you that Google just did, you would stop reading me right now, click on a new bookmark, and never come back to Betanews again. I wouldn't dare make that presumption. So why should Google?

When Apple came to market with the iPhone, it was not like Great Britain's attack on the Falkland Islands. It had the well-respected platform of the iPod and iTunes already established, it had plenty of decent applications already built, and most importantly, it had one very attractive device.

The Chrome device, at this point, does not appear to have any attractive benefits to it, besides the possibility of those that OEMs may add to it through their own volition. One could foresee multitouch as an option. But with only enough solid-state memory to get it running and, I guess, store cookies and bookmarks, it would be difficult for the Chrome device to have enough local media on-hand to be stretched or shrunken or manipulated, even with a link to Picasa. And with the principal application being the Chrome Web browser, there really isn't much use for touch for most instances besides scrolling and tapping.

One has to wonder what manner of sociologist or market consultant or psychoanalyst or supermarket tabloid psychic led Google to this conclusion: that you, the poor, illiterate, unemployed socialite, have the intrinsic desire to become a bandwidth consumer. The Chrome device appears geared around the idea that you want to consume bandwidth, so much so that you're eager to transfer the interface between CPU and local storage entirely to the Internet, and delegate the job of protection and privacy to "the cloud." Because without a "killer app," without a truly revolutionary device design with orders of magnitude more functionality than you've ever had before, and without clear and obvious gains from making the switch, people typically don't make the investment.

Mattel's Aquarius computer, circa 1983.  [Photo credit:]

The Mattel Aquarius computer, circa 1983. [Photo credit:]

Technology has never inspired leaps of faith from consumers. They will make leaps, but only with guarantees. Without them, the manufacturer's value proposition doesn't look any more solid than, say, Mattel's in 1983. Mattel put together a handful of applications (one of them Microsoft BASIC), made a deal with its manufacturer in Hong Kong for a cheap device, and essentially said this: Since you're only using your television to play games anyway, why not stick a keyboard on it, and maybe you can pretend you're doing something productive or educational? At least you'll feel better while you're wasting your time.

The consumer knows when he's been insulted. A new device's value proposition only works when its manufacturer demonstrates that it has at least as much faith in its consumer as it would ask that consumer to invest in it. That's why the iPhone works, that's why the first BlackBerrys worked, that's why the Macintosh worked, it's why the first Android devices are working, and that's why the Google Chrome device has already failed. Chrome is Google's "Bob."

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