Hate computers? Your world is about to change with Chrome
In the decade or so that the web has been in the public consciousness, it has revolutionised a host of everyday tasks – from finding out basic facts via Google to watching that BBC programme you might have missed, and there has been a conspicuous and at times violent revolution in the music business, the book trade and the media.
Yet computers themselves haven’t been affected much.
Yesterday, Google set out to change that. In a radical new vision, the world’s most important technology company set out its contempt for computing as we know it. Why, Google asked, do computers so often ask meaningless questions of their users? Why does it take an age for a PC to boot up? Why, when the web is often our first port of call, do we need to click on an icon to get it going? Why, in short, is a computer a barrier when it should be a tool?
This is the same problem Apple is grappling with – Steve Jobs, its co-founder, has spoken at length of the “Post-PC” age, and the iPad’s instant access to apps and the web has been a great selling point. Neither Google nor Apple has said so explicitly, but the implication is clear: Microsoft’s Windows has not done the job. So long as computers are for geeks, they’re on the wrong track.
So Google has finally announced computers for people who don’t like computers. Where the traditional IT press will condemn such devices for lacking the bits and bytes and gigahertz of their contemporaries, Google has its sights set firmly on the mass market. Chrome OS, an operating system based on the web browser now used by 160 million people, aims to eradicate the need for “the IT department”.
This may all sound too good to be true – we’ve all become so used to new pieces of software coming out every so often. Each new PC sold is, in part, a vehicle to get users to upgrade to new software.
So what is Chrome OS, practically? It starts in about seven seconds; a good device, such as the Samsung model unveiled yesterday, will have 10 hours of battery life; every time you turn it on, the software will check online to see if there are updates, and it will always boot up with the latest version. If there’s a catastrophic failure, for whatever reason, it will simply reinstall itself. Any documents are backed up online - in the "cloud" - and restored from the web. Speed, simplicity and security – the magic sibilance that many users have wanted from technology.
The obvious criticism, of course, is that not everybody is online all the time. When Chrome OS is not connected to the web, the whole concept is hobbled. Google argues that as more developers get involved, that problem will solve itself. And anyway, infrastructure is improving all the time. Some apps, such as that of the New York Times, show that Google Chrome can be configured to work anywhere, anytime. But that remains, for most, the future. Anyway, a Google YouGov survey found that 57 per cent of those questioned were online for at least half of the time they were using a computer.
Perhaps a greater problem is the fact that Chrome OS is not merely optimised for users who want only to go online; it is pure internet all the way. There’s no option to minimise the browser to see a traditional desktop. It needs, in short, its users to be educated. Less of that will be necessary for those simply switching from Microsoft Word to Google Docs – but even basic photo editing online is unnatural for a photography fan with an attachment to Photoshop.
Chrome laptops – Chromebooks – will be available from mid-June across Europe and in America. If they’re priced right, at around £300, for example, makers Samsung and Acer will be able to cash in both on people’s awareness that the future of technology is already out there and on their scepticism over whether tablets, without a keyboard, will ever be enough. While laptops and “netbooks” running software other than Windows have, in the past, been crushed by Microsoft, if anyone can do it, it’s Google. Chrome promises a world of computers that are easier, better and invisible, backed by one of the richest companies in the world.
On Tuesday, Google announced a movie rentals service, a way to store music online, and even lightbulbs that can be controlled from a laptop. All that sounds impressive – but with yesterday’s Chrome OS announcements the company took an enormous bet on wooing users who work with computers but wish they didn’t have to. Certainly, if it ends the days of phoning “IT” to connect to a new printer, Google will win a legion of fans. But will it really make computing effortless, when Apple, Microsoft and others say they all wish the same?
If every office worker or consumer takes up arms against the stroppy, counter-intuitive, bloody-minded software, the answer may just be yes. Google argues that the status quo need no longer exist, and that users should be in charge.