What’s Old is New Again: Google’s Chrome OS

The NY Times tells us that In Google’s vision of a world where all computers run on its Chrome OS, anyone can walk up to any computer with an Internet connection and gain access to all their information.

The thin client. Universal data. Cloud access. Today the technology is more mature, the buzzwords more well-known. But recall if you will the heady days of the first Internet boom, when anything seemed possible and the laws of financial gravity were suspended.

In 1994, Netscape Navigator came out, and came to define the Internet for many people. All of a sudden, the content of the Internet began growing at an astounding pace as new sites came online. Where before the Internet was the province of telnet, usenet, email, ftp, and other more esoteric services, now it was suddenly available to anyone with a modem and more modest skills than the command line demanded.

By 1996, hundreds of reporters had “discovered” the Internet and written breathless accounts of the wondrous peaks they had scaled and the vast oceans of data they had stared at. Alas, they weren’t silent upon a peak in Darien; rather, the same story was written hundreds of times over as this journalist edition of the Eternal September horde shared their astonishment with a print audience of millions.

But while the reporters chattered, Netscape was throwing their gauntlet down in front of Microsoft. The new king said he might supplant the old one. Netscape’s big talk about a “Netscape OS” continued for a couple years. But the Redmond empire struck back, Internet Explorer took over, and Netscape was sold to AOL (ahh, the indignity).

Now comes Google into the fray. What’s different this time, one might ask. In two words, apps and bandwidth.

While the late 90s saw plenty of talk about thin clients and browser applications, it was an idea that had limited success at the time. Browsers were considerably less stable. You could easily crash Navigator and lock up your system by simply closing a window while a page was loading, for example. Web applications were proprietary and specialized. Anything with the slightest sophistication was usually limited to a specific browser and operating system. Microsoft’s attempt to Balkanize the web put the kibosh on the idea of universal interoperability for a number of years.

The installed base for broadband wasn’t there either. At the time, I paid nearly $300 per month for my 128kb ISDN line ($100+ to BellSouth for the line, and another $175 to PSINet for network access and my own Class C subnet). Let me tell you, I was living large, and this massive speed was the envy of all my dialup friends. Although this was the next best thing to a fantastically expensive full T1, today one has to laugh at such a pitifully small pipe.

Today the installed base of broadband and the wide availability of web apps that work (at least most of the time) make the idea of the Chrome OS considerably more feasible than the “Netscape OS” pipe dream. Just as the Newton was the forerunner to the iPad, Netscape’s idea remained in play, waiting for the day when the OS field would be ready for a new player.

Will the Chrome OS succeed? Given the success that Android has enjoyed, it seems more than likely that Google’s energetic efforts may well find a place in the market.

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