Browser OS – the future of personal computing

I was quite impressed with the idea and implementation of Chrome OS last year although I ended up giving up the Chromebook for a new Macbook Air. For me, the reason why I gave up the Chromebook was less about the failure of the OS but rather the shortcoming of the physical hardware. I still believe that Chrome OS is the future of computing. So when Google announced new Chromebooks this year, I was eager to try out the new hardware to see how they would fair with new hardware.
The best way to describe Chrome OS is using the Chrome browser with a very lightweight OS acting as a shell underneath the browser which results in a very small footprint. The small footprint also means that it makes the computer boots up and shuts down really quickly. Since the OS is primarily a browser, the updates are quick and quite painless. Chrome also has the added benefit of being an extremely secure browser for two reasons. The nature of open source and that Google offers huge bounties to the community to try to hack Chrome in order to ensure the security of it. Another added benefit of Chrome OS having such a small footprint is that it’ll likely hold its resale value quite well for two reasons. The first is that it’s relatively affordable as it is – it’s typically cheaper then a high end phone. The other is that because it’s primarily a browser and the use for it is primarily light computing for now, it’s hard to see a good set of hardware lose is lustre after a few years of use.

The web has rapidly matured over the past few years that most things you would traditionally do on your desktop can now be done via an online application. Many of the office suite functionality such as word processing, spreadsheets and presentations can be done by Google Docs or the online version of Microsoft Office 365. Online storage is provided by Google Drive, Microsoft One Drive as well as Dropbox. Light video editing can be done via Google’s Picasa or Adobe’s online version of Lightroom. Personal Accounting software can be done through Mint.com for personal use. Web development can be done via Online IDEs like Nitrous.io or Cloud9. The list goes on. The point is that you can perform many of the desktop functionality quite comfortably for a large percentage of most use cases. Chrome OS takes advantage of that fact.

With the maturing of HTML 5, Chrome has allowed developers to create web applications that would run locally on your desktop while accessing functionality via web APIs. They are called Chrome Apps. On the Chrome browser, the look and feel of these apps feel exactly like a web page which isn’t that impressive. However, on the ChromeOS, Chrome Apps make a ton of sense. You can create links to these apps on the OS dock and launch them like normal apps. The more interesting functionality though is that you are now starting to be able to take some of these online functionality offline as well. Google allows you do Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, Google Docs, Presentation and Spreadsheets offline now. Other apps such as Gliffy have started followed suit.

Given that Chrome OS is an 80% solution, it is unrealistic to see PCs and Macs totally disappear from the household and especially businesses in the near term. People will still need these full blown desktops and notebooks for things such as programming, gaming and advanced photo editing. Given the nature of the OS, you also couldn’t use it as a server for things such as video or music streaming (ala iTunes or Windows Media Player). Chrome OS is also rough around the edges when it comes on file storage and printing even though these are functions that you would expect from a personal computing device. Printing can be solved through Google’s Cloud Print service that allows users to connect via an existing computer for older printers or through a Cloud Print ready printer like the Canon MX722. The experience using my Canon MX722 has been buggy and hasn’t been enjoyable. You could also print by emailing your printer like HP’s email print service which is also another decent alternative to printing. Storage for applications is a little bit more difficult because of how fragmented the storage solution space is. Because each application is an independent service, it can choose which storage it wishes to integrate with. This issue is compounded when it comes to offline storage.

According to NPD, Chromebooks accounted for 21% of all commercial US laptop sales and 10% of all computers and tablets sold in the US. That represents a fairly large share of the market given it’s a fairly new product that is quite unknown or understood by the public. My theory is that what has attracted consumers to purchase these devices is that these devices are really cheap. The first generation of Chrome OS were built by Samsung and Acer. Toshiba, Dell and HP have recently entered the market with Asus supposedly to follow suit. As impressive as these numbers are, we actually have no idea about the number of returns these devices have nor do we know what the profit margin is for each of these devices. Although another benefit of Chrome OS for the manufacturer is that Google doesn’t charge a dime for the use of it. However, these numbers definitely have Microsoft running scared. They have recently released a number of Chromebook attack ads to focus on the very valid shortcomings of Chromebooks albeit in a very exaggerated fashion. Microsoft is also starting to use the same tactics as they did with Android – there is a Microsoft tax on every Chromebook sold.

I am optimistic about Chrome OS and Chromebooks in general. Chrome OS recognizes the evolution of computing as we know it. Web based apps are maturing. The user experience will get better as hardware becomes better and cheaper at the same time. I didn’t start out this way but over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself using Google Apps more and more. I rarely use desktop apps outside of development tools. It’s also a device that I would recommend to someone like my mum. My mum primarily only uses her browser to surf the web and Google Hangouts to chat with my siblings and myself. Even though Skype is the primary app she uses for video conferences with her friends, she is finding that they are also often on Google Hangout because Android tablets are becoming more common among her friends as well.