Chrome and all

Try to collect some thoughts about Chrome et. al.  I really shouldn’t be writing this.  I need to find a job!  But I’m hoping that if I write this I can stop thinking about it. That usually works.

First, a few of other people’s postings about it all, one’s I’ve liked:  John  Gruber’s on  Daring Fireball, Anil Dash’s post, and to a lesser degree Matt Cutt’s reaction.  I’m surprised, I haven’t read anything so far that drags out front and center the security and performance aspects of ChromeOS, more on that below.  The whole reframing of this as about the Microsoft/Google rivalry bores me, it’s thought stopping.

One thing I noticed about Google’s Wave was the absense of any other players at the announcement.  No other significant players on the stage or in the PR to give even the hint that their attempt to create a new standard actually had a diverse community of participants getting on board the bandwagon.  That leaves you with the strong scent of “tail light chasing.”

Android has substantial 3rd party partners.  And in fact I think you can argue that Android product team has put a lot of labor into making the offering palatable to various important 3rd party constituencies.  While striking a balance between the handset makers, the telecom companies, and the developer communities isn’t easy the market and technical trends appear it plausible that something quite disruptive (involving open) will play out successfully.  The Android effort, it seems to me, is innovative at the scale of market shaping, much more so than at the scale of the tech.

Android stands on a long long history of failed attempts to create useful handheld devices.  Conventional wisdom has predicted a handheld revolution since maybe the mid-eighties; and an awe inspiring lot of money has been spent attempting to create products in this space.  I think the successes (Palm OS, the black berry, iPhone, etc.) tend to blind observers to how risky and hard this is.  So on the one hand that makes me a bit sanguine about Android and on the other, if I was leading that effort, I’d be reluctant to license much technical innovation.  The user experience for these things is unimaginably hard to get right.

Which is all to say that Google’s efforts to shape the cell phone (aka handheld + telco) industry in their preferred direction look like they are going reasonably well.  Plenty of risk, but roughly they appear to have gotten the balance  right.  I assume their goals here are pretty transparent, they would prefer to create open standards that move that market, which is adjacent to theirs, closer to commodity pricing while assuring that the standards/platforms that emerge to enable create good ecologies for complements for their offerings.

That effort is reasonably critical, but it can’t hold a candle to assuring that the web browser market evolves in what I’m comfortable calling the right way.  While assuring that the telco markets evolve in desirable ways is extremely important for Google assuring that the browser ecology moves forward is a matter of life and death.  The risks here are pretty extreme.  For example if the browser becomes a rat’s nest of security issues then it’s only a matter of time before some black swan drops by and scares off a large population of users for some period of time and Google’s growth stumbles or worse.  If you look at Google impressive efforts to deliver applications with rich user experience via the browser (email, maps, docs, …) from my stand point, i.e. a guy that worked on desk top user interface tool kits for two decades, what’s striking is the lack of head room.  Those applications are topped out, slamming their heads against the roof of what’s possible in the current Browsers.  Which is why on the standards side they are so deep into HTML 5.

I was originally quite saddened to see Google building Chrome.  At the time I viewed it as a kind fork likely to undermine the vitality of both Webkit and Mozilla.  Forking is often quite problematic.  Maintaining common cause is hard and forking makes it harder.  Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes you have to take a discontinuity; break rather than migrate the existing installed base.  And, installed base can mean a lot of things including the presumptions of the developers currently gathered around the existing code base.

Anyhow, two things changed my mind about Chrome; both Javascript related: i.e. performance and security.  Both are ripe.  Not easy, but the demand is huge, the and the benefits are substantial.  To allocate substantial resources; sums larger than VC money, sums the scale that only a firm like Microsoft or Google might bring to bear you need one more thing.  You need assurances that the problem won’t be routed around before you solve the problem.  You get that when you have an immovable installed base.  I like to joke, sardonically, that if your going to learn a new programming language the one to learn is Javascript because there is no way anybody is displacing it anytime soon.  Notice how addressing performance raises the room while fixing the security problem attempts to tempter the risk of that black swan’s arrival.

Browser headroom and security are problems (risks) for Google, but we all share them.  Reasonably people can argue about the scale of these problem; but I tend to think they are huge and hard.  Which helps to motivate whey Google would tackle with a strategy that is less open and more in house than one might like.  Tackling problems like that in a fully open strategy is harder than doing it in a closed one.  That they took the tack of a semi-open approach is, I think, more about the long term requirement that it be open and less about tempering the distaste at what I presume they saw to be the short term requirement to circle the wagons and tackle these hard problems.

Notice at this point how the Chrome efforts (with security and performance at their design center) are entirely disjoint from the Android efforts (with balancing market shaping goals and hard UI design risks).  To the degree that I’m reading these tea leaves correctly that helps to motivate why the two efforts are largely disjoint.

I notice that like Android, and unlike Wave, ChromeOS product team has brought 3rd party players to the party.  A number of hardware vendors have allowed Google to engage in name dropping.  I wonder if we will see something analogous to Andoid’s Open Handset Alliance?  That kind of thing  de rigueur in the telco industry.  That’s because the power in the telco industry has always been broken more equitably due to the national franchises.  Those franchises have historically been safe.  Each nation’s big phone companies was happy to collaborate on setting standards that lowered their costs and kept their suppliers on an appropriate leash.

The PC industry is a whole different kettle of fish.  Microsoft and Intel have lead standards making in the PC industry, or entirely by virtue of spontaneous emergence (or bottom up) ala Linux and the Web standards.  Gates once complained that Linux exists only by virtue of the commodity hardware he labored so long and hard to assure.  There is some truth to that; and I’ll point out as an aside that Android is an effort to create a similar world of commodity handheld hardware.  So there is a thread here I don’t entirely understand about that.  I don’t really understand how the PC industry reaches agreements about things like what is standard hardware.

Which brings us around to the question of what is an OS?  To me an Operating System is an intentionally designed bridge between hardware and applications.  The goal of that design is to create a space of options, on either side.  Two play grounds (often called platforms) for hardware and software developers (often called firms).  Which raises the obvious question what the hell does Google think it is doing with this ChromeOS?  Sure, I have made the argument that ChromeOS is tackling security and performance so as to address risk and create added headroom.  But, that ain’t a cool new pair of play grounds.  I’m having trouble seeing how the hardware playground created by ChromeOS is substantially different from that we see around netbooks.  If so then that’s a lost opportunity!  The space created on the software side is large, but it’s seems sort of dull – just hill climbing.  These are early days.  We really no nothing, but it seems to me like ChromeOS isn’t distinct enough in the opportunities it is creating for the two key developer communities.  But ask your self, if you had deep pockets would you fund Angel fund a group of clever guys who’s goal was to build something either run on ChromeOS or to run ChromeOS?

I’m a bit conflicted about that conclusion.  I don’t seem to feel that way about Android, and I don’t entirely know why.  Maybe  it’s because Android’s two playgrounds have radically different terms of trade?  Hm.

I find it curious that none of the above observes this thru the lens of what I think is the important shift in the landscape.  I describe this shift by saying that the distribution of new transistors is shifting.  Each year we make N units of new transistors.  Some go into the cloud, a larger are larger share.  Some go into desk tops; and I think that slice of the pie is shrinking (though to be clear the total #/year might still be growing).  And some are going into laptops, handhelds, and cellphones.  That trio’s share is also swelling.  At the same time these devices are less and less autonomous.  They are more entangled, the cloud with the devices, the devices with the cloud.  This increasingly entangled world of devices that are polar opposites in scale is so entirely different than the world of personal computing that I think it requires a kind of brain wash to appreciate it.

That new world is the world that Google thrives in.  Projects like Android, ChromeOS, are both about one side of that bi-polar world.  Their application offerings are more about the entangled nature of this, particularly Wave and Docs.  So any story we tell about ChromeOS needs to be stitched into a narrative about who that new world is going to shake out.  I don’t think I’ve done that here.

Well, that was a morning wasted.

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