Chrome 10 seeds Google's Cloud OS ambitions

Google is preparing anyone using Chrome 10, which released yesterday, for launch of Chrome OS. The new standalone browser has reached feature parity -- for business, consumer or IT pro evaluator users, anyway -- with Chrome OS browser front-end running on Google Cr-48 laptops. Chrome 10 is a much bigger browser release than even Google's boasting -- "speedier, simpler, safer" -- lets on. Google is beginning its biggest push yet to the cloud, and Chrome OS is quickly, and I do mean quickly, approaching v1 release. Apple and Microsoft had best watch out, because among major platform developers they have the most to lose should Google's cloud ambitions succeed.

Chrome 10's standout features, at least for cloud computing, all begin with "s": sandbox, search, services, simplicity, security, settings, speed, stability and synchronization. Many of these attributes interrelate or aren't new to this browser release -- they're improved for cloud readiness.

Command Line for the Internet

Google has moved settings to a tab, just like it is on Chrome OS. This seemingly small change further unifies the user interface motifs. Remember, on Chrome OS, the browser is the UI. Search is now the main means for navigating Chrome 10 or Chrome OS settings -- an approach that leverages Google strengths and greatly simplifies how end users personalize Chrome for their needs. Google user interfaces may not be as pretty as Apple's but simplicity gives them greater utility.

Search is no longer about finding stuff on the Web. In May 2005 guest column for Betanews, I explained why search is the new user interface, in context of new capabilities Apple introduced into Mac OS X (and later largely failed to extend). I called search "the modern version of the command line." In June 2007 Microsoft Watch post "Why Google Succeeds, Part I," I further explained -- and it's hugely relevant to where Chrome, Chrome OS and Google cloud services are today:

Google provides perhaps one of the best user interfaces, because complexity is hidden from the end user. Google search is like a command line for the Internet. People type keywords and Google algorithms and server software do most of the heavy work. There are no multi-step processes or Wizards to work through.

This approach permeates Google design, and there is some necessity for it. Desktop software is more self-contained, whereas more of web applications' computational and informational functions pull from the server. Desktop application user interfaces tend to be more complex and confusing than those consumed in browsers or small utilities like widgets.

Make no mistake: Search is core to all Google user interfaces and will be increasingly more so as the company more aggressively pushes its cloud platform. Chrome 10 or Chrome OS settings are but one example.

Play Nicely in the Sandbox

One hallmark feature common to Chrome and Chrome OS is sandboxing, which isolates tabs and also some third-party plugins, particularly Adobe Flash. For example, in my experience, Flash or Shockwave may crash (Chrome gives a warning) but not the tab, browser or operating system (if Chrome OS). Sandboxing improves stability, which many commentators and pundits have taken to be about making Chrome a better and more competitive browser. That's not right. Google developers are more broadly looking at the greater stability of the cloud platform, of which Chrome is a part. It's one reason the Restore feature -- well, hell, that's an "r" and not an "s" -- is so important whenever there is a fatal Chrome or Chrome OS crash. If businesses are going to use Chrome connected to the cloud, they need it to be dependable, which also means assurance they can recover in-session data when something goes terribly wrong.

Sandboxing also is about security. Yesterday, Tim Steele, Google software engineer, claimed in a blog post: "You'll be even safer as you speed around the web, as we've extended Chrome's sandboxing technology to the integrated Flash Player in Chrome. So if you're using Windows Vista or newer versions, you'll benefit from the additional layer of protection against malicious webpages.

Speed is another requirement for working in the cloud. I find Chrome OS to be quite responsive on Google's Cr-48 laptop. While many geeks will get caught up in speed as it relates to performance, Google is looking at the broader platform. Steele writes about Chrome 10: "Even your most complex web apps will run more quickly and responsively in the browser. (For the curious, this boost corresponds to a 66% improvement in JavaScript performance on the V8 benchmark suite.)" The point: Web apps.

Taking Apps to the Cloud

No one should underestimate Google's ambitions when it comes to web apps (and browser extensions). I covered some of this topic in April 2010 post "Clash of the titans: Apple, Google battle for the mobile web." Simply put: Apple wants to pull computational and informational relevance to applications, while Google seeks to shift relevance to the Web. There is a clash over whether local applications or Web Apps -- essentially cloud services -- will be more important, particularly on mobile devices (which for the purposes of this essay includes laptops -- not just smartphones and tablets). I see room for both models.

That said, the web apps model offers consumers and enterprises some fundamental advantages:

  • Anytime, anywhere access to their stuff on anything
  • Access to apps, services and data using a single username and password
  • Less likely loss of data should a laptop, tablet or smartphone be lost or stolen
  • Simpler user interfaces, as web apps push more of the complexity to the server

When my MacBook Air crashed last week, I switched over to Google's Cr-48, logged into my Google account and immediately had access to everything I needed. I lost maybe 15 minutes of productivity, mostly spent trying to revive the Air. If my Windows laptop hadn't been out on loan, I could have had the same experience using Chrome 10 (then in beta) on Windows 7. Web apps and data were easily available.

Killer Application for the Connected World

I could get back to work so quickly after my Mac crashed because of Chrome's synchronization feature, which is improved in standalone version 10. Using the user's Google account as basis, Chrome 10 and Chrome OS can sync apps, autofills, bookmarks, extensions, passwords, preferences and even themes among browsers used on different computers. Once setup, the browser syncs with the cloud when launched. It's amazingly efficient. The user can also add his or her own passphrase as extra layer of security.

Sync is hugely important. In March 2008 Microsoft Watch post "Do IT simply with sync" I asserted: "Synchronization is the natural killer application for the connected world." That's more true today than three years ago. Sync defined many connected tech products, such as smartphones and tablets, released or updated in 2010 and its importance will only grow over the next couple years. Tech companies that get sync right will set the agenda for the delivery of future content and services. Right now, Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft offer robust, but different, sync services. Apple relies mainly on iTunes and MobileMe to a lesser degree.

Google is all about the cloud, and syncing and providing access to cloud services through a single user ID and password. This approach is essential to achieving Google's cloud ambitions. My Chrome OS experience is example. I hadn't used Gmail in a browser for months and worried about accessing legacy format documents. I shouldn't have fussed. Last week, a Betanews reader sent a story in Word .docx format. Clicking the attachment launched Google Docs in browser tab for viewing and editing the document. That's not sync exactly, but demonstrates cloud integration around Google ID. I had similar user experience when opening a PDF document last night. Microsoft should be particularly concerned about this kind of good user experience with respect to Office sales.

Chrome 10: Training for the Cloud

Chrome 10 is by far Google's most cloud-services ready version of the browser, and it's no coincidence that near the end of Chrome OS development cloud capabilities should suddenly align. If build numbers mean anything, Chrome 10 pushes ahead of Chrome OS. Respectively: 10.0.648.116 and 10.0.648.127. Not that I expect that difference to last long.

For now, Chrome 10 is preparing businesses, consumers and developers for Google's next big cloud push, which won't be just about the new operating system. Many of the cloud benefits can be had in the stand-alone browser. But to be clear: Google isn't improving Chrome to make it a better browser. The search and information giant has broader ambitions -- building out its cloud platform.

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