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Computing Thoughts
Google Chrome Changes the Game
by Bruce Eckel
August 24, 2009
Summary
My prediction of how Chrome -- both the browser and the OS -- is going to flatten the playing field for programmers.

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As I've said many times before, the biggest problem with web programming (and most programming is either on the web or going there) is the lack of a consistent programming platform. The amount of effort and money wasted to compensate for browser inconsistencies is phenomenal.

This is why Flex and Flash are doing so well. You write programs without even thinking about platform differences.

But Flash apps are still trapped within the browser and the vagaries of HTML implementations. Some programmers still don't trust Flash because it comes from a single source. And we're looking at yet another long, slow, erratic adoption cycle for HTML5 and the most modern version of JavaScript.

Now imagine that you can have the Flex/Flash programming experience, but with HTML5 and JavaScript, and you know it will run everywhere without any effort or special code. You can just learn one set of technologies, the standardized, correct ones, and use them without wondering whether a particular language feature will work everywhere.

The price you pay for this is the insertion of a piece of code that checks for the browser and pops up a dialog that says "this application only runs under Google Chrome." Perhaps it automatically starts the Chrome browser if it's one your machine. If it isn't installed it takes you to an installation page.

This is no different than the experience people have with Flash or Java right now. Well, except that people don't hesitate to install Flash (the installations are virtually 100%, and the upgrades to recent versions have been happening faster than expected), because Adobe spent a lot of time early on focusing on the end user installation experience. Unfortunately Sun put the installation experience for Java on the back burner for so long that the window of opportunity may have passed (there's finally some motion in that area, so we'll see).

The vast majority of basic computer consumers trust Google, and will not hesitate to install the Chrome Browser in order to run an application, in the same way they install Flash to run YouTube.

The Chrome OS

Here is the Dell Mini-9 Netbook with Linux at $239. (If you just go to Dell and look up 'Netbooks' you'll end up on a page which has no choice but Windows XP, thanks no doubt to pressure from Microsoft; you have to actually search for 'Linux' to find the above link). Note that you can "personalize with Windows XP for an additional $150." Some of this is likely the additional hardware requirement to support Windows, because elsewhere on the site it appears that the incremental cost of XP is actually $60.

As the price of netbooks drops the Microsoft tax becomes more obvious, and more painful to consumers.

The early years of Linux was targeted to geek techno-nerds. Out of curiosity, I would try about once a year to install Linux, and give up when it started asking low-level technical questions I didn't know how to answer. Finally Red Hat turned the corner and made a Linux that would figure out how to install itself. And in recent years, Ubuntu Linux has made installation and use a pleasant experience for the average consumer. But it will be a few years before it shakes off its historical reputation of being only for uber-geeks.

The Chrome OS has no such baggage; instead, it has the shiny positive reputation from Google that will give warm fuzzies to the masses of netbook buyers. And, because Google learned so well from Microsoft's tactic of stealing wind from the sails of your competitors through timely pre-announcements (in Microsoft's case, for products that were only illusions meant to torpedo a perceived threat), those buyers are going to skip paying the Microsoft tax for Windows 7 and wait just a bit longer to get the free Google Chrome OS on their new netbooks, probably paying less for the hardware in the process because Chrome requires less resources.

Microsoft has a history of pushing out competition and pushing bloated and bad products down consumer throats. Steve Ballmer is the master of denial when real competition appears on the horizon, as seen in these two quotes:

Google's not a real company. It's a house of cards.

There can't be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That's for sure.

And of course there's the famous:

Developers, developers, developers!

He's right, developers are important. And if you only go to Microsoft conferences, it looks like all developers are using Windows. But if you go to any other developer conference, everyone is using Macs. I wonder if anyone has even told Ballmer this (who would want to? He throws chairs through windows when he hears bad news). By the time the board of directors replaces him, years of damage will have been infused so deeply into the company that I can't see how it will recover; if it does, it will be a long and painful process.

Windows 7 is going to take a big hit at the low end, where a lot of people are making their first entry into computing. "Windows 7 sucks less than Vista" is not going to be an effective campaign for people who are looking at paying an additional $150 on top of a machine that costs a bit over $200, and by next year could be under $200 to the point where the cost approaches double to have Microsoft (and just the OS, not Office). No amount of pitching can convince people that "a lot more money on top of your cheap netbook hardware" is more interesting than "free."

The experience is going to be a big selling point, too. Chrome OS will boot very quickly and get you onto the web in seconds. Even when it's asleep, Windows wakes up a lot slower than this, and people will see it, and the salespeople at the Buy More will discover that sales are easier when the customer sees a better user experience.

And we can't forget viruses. My brother makes about half his income cleaning viruses off of windows boxes. Everyone has heard about viruses; saying "Windows 7 has better virus protection!" (a different variation on "sucks less") is not exactly reassuring given Microsoft's long history of writing a virus friendly OS and not fixing it. Once again, Google's reputation will pay off -- whether Chrome is virus-proof or not people will have more confidence that Google will continue to improve it.

Once new computer buyers get started with Chrome OS, the baby duck syndrome sets in and you'll have a very hard time prying them away from Chrome and into Windows. No matter how understated Google's announcement of Chrome OS has been, it bodes very badly for Microsoft.

Deeper OS Connections

Chrome OS will need to connect to the hardware and control more than we're used to in a browser (the Chrome OS UI will basically be the Chrome Browser). We've seen Google creeping in this direction for awhile, with Google Gears to allow applications to more easily disconnect and reconnect to the web.

In order for you to be able to write applications that work on both the Chrome OS and the Chrome browser, the browser will need (sandboxed) functionality similar to the OS. The result is that you'll be able to write far more powerful applications without intruding on (or scaring) the end user. To do this in Flash, you have to install the AIR runtime.

I suspect that Chrome will take the same conservative approach as Adobe AIR did, adding OS connectivity carefully on an as-needed basis.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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