Firefox: must it be adios instead of adieu?

The Thinker by Rodin

This blog post by a Firefox developer is making the rounds in the techno-blogosphere. Firefox developer Jono Xia makes the point that constant updates to the open-source Firefox web browser is driving its devotees nuts. It has made me switch from Mozilla Firefox to Google Chrome for most of my browsing. In Xia’s opinion, the problem is that Firefox developers have become enamored with features, and keep adding bells and whistles to the browser. Most actual users (like me) mostly want high usability and for new features to be introduced gradually. In particular, we don’t like radical changes to our user interface.

This should not be hard to figure out. Imagine if once a month you went to drive your car and the ignition key moved to a different location or that the turn signal had moved from left of the steering wheel to right of it. That’s how it’s been with Firefox for a while. But now these changes occur stealthily. It used to be you were told when a new version was available, and then had the option of downloading it. With the latest versions of Firefox, new versions download quietly in the background and appear the next time you restart the browser. This has its strengths. If there has to be bug fixes and critical patches I’d largely prefer to be kept ignorant of them. What I don’t want is to start my browser and find new tools on my toolbar, or that suddenly some of my favorite add-ons no longer work because they were not upgraded to the latest stealthily upgraded version.

Yet if you use Firefox religiously, this sort of stuff feels like it happens all the time. To say the least, it is jarring. Many if not most of us spend much of our lives staring at content in our web browser. A consistent user interface is good. This means browsing requires less thought and becomes automatic. Add irregular but relatively frequent amounts of change to the user interface and it becomes annoying and at some nebulous point intolerable. It used to be that a year or at least many months would go by between a major version of Firefox. Now it can be weeks!

I use Firefox on a Mac. I noticed over a period of months that Firefox kept slowing down. It loaded slowly. Pages reloaded slowly. If I had a half dozen tabs open when starting up it would take a minute or more for the data in the tabs to be refreshed. Moving from tab to tab was often slow and full of latency, where the current tab just hung there for a while with an hourglass cursor. Sometimes the browser just hung and I had to do a Force Quit to kill it, or would not shutdown when I shut the computer down.

These sorts of problems don’t happen naturally. They are a result of poor software engineering. I speak with authority here because I happen to have a master’s degree in software systems engineering from George Mason University. Granted, building a web browser is hardly a trivial task. There are so many aspects to integrate correctly. In short, it is a complex engineering challenge to make it work on just one operating system, let alone the many operating systems that Firefox supports. Mostly these problems point to a process problem, rather than a programming problem. Just as you can build more cars if you speed up the assembly line, but those cars may suffer something in the way of quality, to keep up with the competition you can push out new versions of a browser more quickly if you cross your fingers and hope that current functionality is not compromised in doing so. It’s clear that a lot of current functionality is compromised by Mozilla’s current approach.

I don’t know exactly how the Mozilla project is run. I certainly like its goals: create a browser that is platform agnostic, that won’t make anyone rich, and that rigorously adheres to the latest web standards. It was this approach that lead to the rise of Firefox in the first place, including a glowing review by me a full eight years ago when it was not yet official. At the time, Microsoft had put its Internet Explorer browser on the back burner. At least you could say that IE did not change a lot. It was quirky, but it was consistently. You could go years between new versions of the browser.

With Firefox, what seems to be missing is good and frequent regression testing. Regression testing means automated testing that tests when you add in new functionality that the current functionality still works. Mozilla is hardly alone in having problems with regression testing. It is a decidedly unsexy thing to do, but vital for good software engineering. It’s also a hard thing to do. I know this from personal experience. The regression testing tools out there tend to be very pricey (Mercury’s suite, now owned by HP, comes to mind) and, for the most part, annoying to use. Most of them cannot handle tiny changes in canned tests, like the change of location of an image on a web page, without failing the test. You are expected to create whole new tests. I am looking into one testing suite that looks like it allows test cases to be reasonably fault tolerant. If so, we can gain a whole lot of productivity doing regression testing.

Doubtless Mozilla is doing some regression testing, but it should probably do a lot more and probably have a much more well thought out process for doing it. If satisfying users is truly their primary goal, they may need more testers and fewer developers. It sounds like it is the other way around.

So I have been seduced by the Google Chrome browser. I won’t use IE. I just loathe it and I can’t quite put my finger on why but certainly it’s not a good thing that it is developed by Microsoft, and its bright blue theme jars me. Chrome, like Microsoft, is a product of another empire, just not one quite as evil, at least not yet, but certainly one targeted to encourage you use all things Google. It’s clear after you run Chrome for a while that it is a slicker product overall than Firefox. It’s also faster and better engineered. For example, each browser tab has its own CPU process. This has lots of benefits; the primary one being it is much less likely to crash. Firefox is catching up here, but even so it is still buggy and slow on my Mac.

I don’t want to love Chrome, but considering how much time I spend in a browser I have to have a browser that works fast, reliably and consistently. Chrome has not been perfect here, particularly with its user interface, which has morphed faster than I would like. But it is standards based, multiple-platform, fast and reliable.

I really want to go back to Firefox. It is the reference implementation for browsers, although maybe not so much anymore the way they throw out new features so quickly. There are certain Firefox behaviors I really miss, like the Bookmark manager in a sidebar. For right now I simply cannot revert. I hope Mozilla gets its act together, and listens better to the needs of its users.

So will it be adios and goodbye forever for Firefox? Or can I say adieu for now, and I’ll be glad to come back when you have your act together? For right now, I say adieu, but pretty soon it is going to be adios.

Google’s secret sauce revealed by Google+

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s no particular secret that I hate Facebook. My loathing of it has not been enough to keep me off it, since I have a couple of friends that I would hardly ever hear from if it were not for Facebook. Surely, I thought, someone could write something better and more intelligent.

Google is giving it the old college try, actually a second try. Google Buzz was a first bumbling attempt, and is still around, but hardly anyone uses it. This newest attempt called Google+ is rightly perceived as sort of sexy. Facebook won market share surreptitiously but smartly, mainly by marketing to a high-end clientele. If you saw The Social Network you know it was designed to be an exclusive club in cyberspace for those attending Harvard University, then later slowly branched out to other Ivy League schools. It grew like kudzu, slowly at first, but steadily until before we knew it, it was pervasive.

I don’t know exactly how Google chose who would use Google+, or G+ as others and I are starting to call it (it’s so much shorter). But I suspect they looked at the Facebook model, ran some sort of algorithm that figured out who their most social Gmail users were, assigned them a “cool” rating and invited them to try G+ out. Being social of course they quickly invited their friends. I figure that’s how I got invited. (Right now, don’t assume you can just sign up. You need a sponsor.) My friend Renee is by far the most prolific poster I have among my Facebook friends and she has a Gmail account. So I wasn’t surprised that she got an early invitation and she quickly extended it to me. I have spent the last twenty-four hours or so dabbling in the G+ universe.

Yes, I do like it better than Facebook, which would not have been difficult. First, I admire Google as a company. Second, like me, Google obviously spent a lot of time pondering Facebook’s obvious and massive deficiencies, like its baffling user interface, and figured how to do it one better while looking sort of like it.

G+ Circles are one example. Circles are merely collections of friends or people that share a common interest with you. Facebook does have groups, but you have to navigate to them, redrawing your screen in the process. With Circles, Web 2.0 technology ensures that the screen stays the same, but the content changes. It’s much less jarring. Moreover, Facebook groups contain people you don’t necessarily want to interact with. Once you use a G+ Circle, you wonder how Facebook missed something so obvious.

It’s ridiculously easy to create and populate circles. Facebook will suggest friends based on your friend’s friends, the email services you choose to let it peruse and information you put in your profile. That’s a lot of hassle. Many of us in the Google world already have GMail, so there is nothing much for Google to do as far as suggesting friends. Doubtless it just figures out whom you are emailing and ranks them by how often you converse with them. Just drag their icon into the circle you want. That’s pretty much it. If they are not already in the G+ hive, apparently it can send your G+ posts to them via email. It’s unclear to me as a neophyte whether it does this automatically or whether you have to authorize it. I hope it’s the latter.

G+ is a beta product, so it will doubtless morph with features as it grows. I have yet to try most of its ancillary features, but most like Hangouts and Chats sound useful. Its main value appears to be as a key component of the amorphous but meaningful Google experience. For example, I can see that over time G+ will make email something that happens in the background. When necessary, communications will go out via Gmail, but since most of the people you contact will also be in G+, or will get email notifications of conversations through G+, the whole email To-From-Subject-Message thing becomes less relevant. Rather you just find the person in the circle of interest and send them a note. Google handles all the details. Email addresses become unessential physical details that Google handles transparently for you.

Google's application menu
Google's application menu

It’s really that grey bar on the top of your browser screen that distinguishes G+ from Facebook. Facebook had some idea what Google was up to because they too are trying to integrate email inside of Facebook, making Facebook social networking and email one common and seamless experience. But Google has all these other products: a slick calendar, an easy to use Reader for newsfeeds, Google Docs for documents and spreadsheets, its easy to use Picasa photo album not to mention its still top-notch search engine. Facebook cannot begin to compete with all these services Google has had around and have been maturing for years.

Moreover, as more and more of your personal stuff exists within the Google cloud, thinking about where you store all your stuff becomes so 21st century. It’s just out there when you need it – stop worrying about it and just assume it’s always there and instantly avaiable. For the optimal experience, of course, use Google Chrome as your browser. Or, if you are mobile, use an Android-based smartphone, although Apple’s iOS will work as well. Chrome and Android become presentation portals for all the Internet stuff that’s important to you. All those backend interaction portals, like G+, become optimized but sophisticated tools to make your interaction with the web as meaningful and simple as possible. There is all this plus the open Internet. You can still get to any place on the web you need to go. Moreover, doubtless there is an app, if not hundreds of apps that will let you do peculiar but necessary stuff on the Internet. For example, you may need to access that remote spreadsheet at work. Or if like me you are in the water monitoring business, you may want to check on water levels on your favorite local river. Hey, there’s an app for that.

G+ is an attempt, not so much to kill Facebook, as it is to let Google wrap its benevolent arms for you around your whole electronic world. We all get things done in the real world through real people, so interacting with them and exchanging information with them in as seamless and as effortless a way as possible is something we all want. Effortlessness is enhanced through G+ Circles, because there are groups you are very tight with and others less so that you can peruse when time allows. That is the meaning of G+, and is why both Facebook and Microsoft should be very afraid. The gentle giant from Mountain View, California is likely to succeed in bringing us the enfolding Internet, and G+ is its secret sauce designed to seal the deal.

An app’s not an app, for all of that

The Thinker by Rodin

Christmas often brings a new gadget or two under my tree. This Christmas brought me an Amazon Kindle e-book reader, courtesy of my spouse. While I work my way to the conclusion of my paper-bound tome of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, I already know that it would be an easier book to read at night in bed on my Kindle.

I have not yet succumbed to the smartphone mania, although I have played with the smartphones of others. I find them neat devices, at least when the wireless spectrum is not too crowded. Arguably, there would be times in my telephone-minimized life when one of these gizmos would prove useful. It would work as a great GPS, and I wouldn’t have to pay $70 to Garmin to get updated maps. I might find it convenient to answer email while mobile, although I have avoided Blackberries specifically so I do not raise the expectation with my boss that I should always be electronically accessible.

Smartphones seem to be much more about the Internet than about the telephone, and generally to do something useful with them you must download an “app” (application), many of which you must purchase. These apps are proving a boon to software developers, who need to pay bills.

I have been following Google’s Chrome for a while now. Many of us are aware of the Google Chrome browser, and it seems to be gaining market share at a fast pace. It is already clearly the number three browser, and most of its share of the browser market is coming at the expense of Internet Explorer. It’s important to distinguish between the Google Chrome Browser and Google Chrome OS, which is a lightweight operating system. Chrome OS is starting to come out of the labs and will soon be embedded into devices like notebook computers. The Chrome browser is available for a number of operating systems.

Just to make things more confusing, Chrome OS is a distinct operating system from Android, Google’s operating system for smartphones. As many of you know who own smartphones, Android and Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS own much of this market. Arguably, BlackBerry OS is the granddaddy in this market, although its devices have traditionally been focused around email. Microsoft as usual is trying to play catch up, and is currently rolling out Microsoft Phone 7 as its smartphone operating system, apparently deciding to give Microsoft Mobile the towel.

For smartphones, apps are a near necessity. Given the small screen size, you should not mind paying for clever apps that make the most of your smartphone. After all, if your smartphone had enough resolution to be a desktop computer, you would not be installing apps. You would surf to your favorite sites instead.

Or would you? The browser makers are now busy standing up app stores. Browsers like Firefox have a proud tradition of user written free extensions that add functionality to the browser. Many of these extensions are being remarketed as “apps” in Mozilla’s soon to be released application store. Arguably, a browser extension is not the same thing as an application. An extension, as the name implies, extends the functionality of the browser. An application, at least in theory, can live separately from the browser. You should not have to run the browser in order to run the app.

Rather, these apps depend on one or more frameworks. Ideally, an app will depend directly on the operating system to handle the messy things that operating systems do. They may also depend on the framework provided by the browser. Mozilla Firefox, for example, is a browser that works on multiple operating systems. Under its hood is a framework that application developers can build on top of that works regardless of your operating system.

By definition, you need to have your browser running in order to run these browser extensions. With apps, it is no longer required. It may be possible to write an app that uses the browser’s framework without needing the browser to actually display anything. Or an app can be written directly for the operating system. Just as Microsoft Word is written to work with Microsoft Windows, Chrome apps are starting to appear that will work directly with Chrome OS.

All this background is necessary to understand where this is leading. Mobile-friendly operating systems in particular are making browsers less important as independently running apps provide a richer experience. This trend is now bleeding over into desktop and laptop computers and endangering the browser and the world wide web.

So why did Google create its own browser called Chrome in the first place? Could they really create a better browsing experience than, say, Mozilla Firefox? Perhaps, but differences in the usability of browsers in general are becoming irrelevant. Some are marginally faster or slower or offer better or fewer features. The Chrome browser is being marketed so heavily that it is hoped that you will accept it and get used to it. With Google products like GMail and Google Docs, you will also get used to having your electronic life “in the cloud” rather than on your personal device. Eventually you may replace your Windows or Mac machine with a lightweight device running Google Chrome OS. When you will do, you will be encouraged to install various apps, many for free, many for money, to do things the snazzy Google Chrome browser cannot do. (This may not be readily apparent if the apps live inside of the Chrome browser, but the effect will be true nonetheless.)

This will in turn tie you closer to Google, its software services and monetize a stream of money toward Google and third party developers, all through apps provided in its store. The result is that you will end up paying more to get content, much of which used to be free. In addition, the browsing experience may be less valuable, as service providers like Amazon spend more of their time and money tuning content to work with applications rather than a browser. If an app takes off the way other viral software did, say, like Visicalc did in the early 1980s, the only way to get content may be through the authorized app, rather than through a browser.

The World Wide Web as we have known it may be ending, as content moves toward being used through apps rather than a browser. The companies that succeed in the apps market hope to be richly rewarded. The Internet, as a neutral platform for acquiring information, may be less useful or, in time, disappear into marginal relevance. Instead, you will need an app to do it. You may find, for example, that to make your flight reservation with Southwest, you must use its authorized app, for which they may charge you a $10 a year annual fee.

Think twice before paying for an app or buying a device running Google’s Chrome OS. You may be locking yourself into proprietary networks, thus balkanizing an Internet where open accessibility has been its strongest feature. My new fancy Amazon Kindle is locked into Amazon’s network. Now I can buy any eBook I want, as long as it is in Kindle format, and therefore as long as I buy it only from Amazon. (Note: Kindles also can show PDF documents, but they are not as easy to read as an eBook.)

Google Chrome needs a bit more polishing

The Thinker by Rodin

For about three months, I have been taking Google’s Chrome browser out for an extended spin. What I am discovering is that while there is a lot to love about Chrome, it has some usability issues that annoy me.

As I noted three months ago, you have to love Chrome for how fast it is. It both loads quickly and renders web pages quickly. Although a new browser, it has proven to be much more stable than my browser for the last seven years, Mozilla Firefox. My instability issues with Firefox may have a lot to do with poor engineering of the many user created add-ons that I have grown accustomed to. Arguably, Chrome is better engineered for both stability and speed. One way it does both is by assigning one computer thread to each open tab window.

Three months ago, add-ons (or extensions as they call them) for Chrome were relatively few. That has changed dramatically. You can find equivalent extensions for most of Firefox’s voluminous add-ons, often written by the same developers who created them for Firefox. In some cases, they lack the maturity of the original Firefox add-on. The Firebug extension for Chrome, at least as of this writing, is just Firebug-Lite, which has maybe fifty percent of the features of the full Firefox add-on. If I need to peer deep into the document object model of a web page to troubleshoot it, I am using Firefox with the Firebug add-on. Still, most of the extensions I care about are already there, often in many subtly different flavors. These include Web Developer, an XMarks bookmarks synchronization tool, Web of Trust (which lets you know of suspicious sites), a Web to PDF converter, a webpage screenshot tool, a tool that automatically converts text links into real links, Chromed Bird (a really sweet Twitter extension), a Weather Underground add-on and a Yahoo Mail Notifier. Doubtless, I would find many more “must have” extensions if I spent more time trying them out.

You would expect Chrome to have a tight integration with the Google Search Engine, but it is not yet smart enough to act like Firefox’s Awesome Bar, which intelligently tracks your most frequent queries and finds them by typing a few characters on the URL field. Similarly, Firefox’s Bookmarks toolbar (where your bookmarks conveniently rest on a window on the side of the browser) is so much more usable than Chrome’s “Other Bookmarks” button and navigating through the multiple levels of bookmarks to get to the bookmark of choice.

In addition, Chrome could use a real menu system, so you can easily get to every feature. (You do get one with the MacOS version because MacOS requires it.) Say you want to open a local file or print a web page. You can click on the “Control the Current Page” button and get to it there, but it is counterintuitive and breaks the standard desktop computing metaphor. Instead, I clicked on the “Customize and Control” button (the little wrench icon) expecting it would be there, but it wasn’t. I sure would also like to be able to add a print button to the toolbar, but if there is a way to do it, it is not intuitive.

I understand why Google made these major changes. They wanted to maximize the extent of the browser window on the assumption that content is what really matters and every pixel counts. The reality is that using a browser requires an intelligent tradeoff between viewing web pages and swiftly navigating to (or finding) where you want to go, and that requires real estate for more controls. Chrome made too many compromises and broke too many metaphors in pursuit of its Holy Grail of making the largest possible browser window.

To understand why they became so anal, you have to remember their long-term vision. They want to kill Windows, and if they kill MacOS as well, they will be even happier. Their vision of the future is that everyone is carrying around a netbook running their ChromeOS operating system which will boot very quickly and immediately dump you into the Chrome browser. All your applications would be web applications that run inside of Chrome. In the netbook world, almost everyone is accessing as a wireless device and they are likely to be keyboard challenged as well. They want to wrest our minds away from the PC metaphor of menus and task bars into something new and compact, behaving more like an intelligent cell phone or iPad. Chrome aligns fine with their Chrome OS vision, but while we live in the Windows/MacOS world, the disconnect is quite jarring. It’s like sitting in a Prius and looking desperately for the slot for the ignition key. In short, right now it’s just weird.

Having said these things, Chrome is so smoking fast that a lot of the time I don’t care. If I just want to search the web to visit a few favorite sites or want integrated access to their search engine, it excels. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to having my browser do all these other tricks. Making Chrome do them as well is going to take time. I suspect Google’s engineers will get us there if we are patient.

At work because I have an extensive collection of bookmarks for obscure places I need to go to quickly in order to do my job, the small latency and instability in Firefox is a small price to pay versus the speed and counterintuitive ways that Chrome works. At home, where my needs are more modest and I have MacOS, I use Chrome. Meanwhile, feeling the heat and losing market share to Chrome, Mozilla is trying to speed up Firefox by imitating Chrome by placing each tab in a thread. Unfortunately, it will take some time implement it, as it requires a lot of reengineering. If they do it quickly enough, I may continue to stay with Firefox indefinitely. Given that Google’s pockets are far deeper than Mozilla’s, I am not too hopeful.

Taking Chrome for a Spin

The Thinker by Rodin

Does it really matter which browser you use? So many of us spend our lives in a browser that it is reasonable to think the answer is yes. Nevertheless, all browsers pretty much do the same thing. Once familiarity sets in, you have to have a compelling reason to move from one browser to another.

In 2004, I ditched the world’s de-facto browser Internet Explorer for a weird upstart browser called Mozilla Firefox. It was an easy switch. It was true that back then, thanks to Microsoft’s proprietary extensions to HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that things would not always behave the same way in both browsers. Six years later, I still have to use Internet Explorer on a few sites, because the application has not been updated to use web standards. This is now largely a past memory. Unless you need some quirky feature like HTML 5 compatibility (which most browsers are racing to address anyhow) most of the rendering oddities are in the past. Not that a few don’t still bite us. Last I checked, Internet Explorer still did not allow rows in HTML tables to dynamically collapse through Javascript.

For six years, I have been satisfied with Firefox, and generally happier with each new release. I loved all the free plug-ins that were available. The latest version of Firefox (3.6) that I recently downloaded introduced personas. These are sort of like themes for the blank spaces around the edge of your browser. It’s pretty neat to look at, but it’s really window dressing, just like the wallpaper on your computer’s desktop. What matters the most to me is usability. Simple tends to be better.

Firefox’s weakness the last year or so has been its instability. It crashes a lot for me on both Windows and the Mac. This could be more annoying than it is, for you can at least restart it quickly and it will remember your open windows. Firefox also suffers from new version syndrome. Once every few weeks it wants to install a new minor version of itself, sometimes with new features, but mostly to fix bugs. As annoying as new versions are, it’s a straightforward and quick process. It’s better than Internet Explorer, which even though it claims to have excellent security is rife with bugs that require all sorts of mostly behind the scenes patching. IE wants to keep you in the dark about its bugs. Firefox is in your face with them by patching them so quickly.

Since I have a Mac, I also have Safari, which I use from time to time. It’s pretty nice, and there actually is a version of Safari for the PC, although it looks quite a bit different on a PC. There are lesser-known browsers out there like Opera (proprietary and not necessarily free) and Konquerer (for Linux boxes). Now there is also the official Google browser called Chrome. Chrome is part of Google’s grand design toward a web-centric architecture. Its operating system Chrome OS, which I wrote about recently, is taking wings and will soon be appearing on fine netbook computers.

I had installed the Chrome browser but had never really put it through its paces. I did so over the last long snow-congested weekend. After a couple hours, I was hooked. I will still need Firefox for quite a while. If Firefox can be made as fast and stable as Chrome, I would gladly drift back to Firefox. I must say though that Chrome’s speed and stability are both very compelling. I didn’t need Firefox to come out with a persona feature. What I need is a browser that is a lot like my Mac: I don’t have to think about it. It should just work. The best browser is like a sheet of glass. It renders the page of interest transparently, cleanly and correctly. Chrome just takes you where you need to go quickly and with (so far) none of the quirky rendering issues that plague most browsers. Through delivering high backwards and forwards compatibility, Chrome seems to have filled the niche. No wonder that Chrome’s browser share is climbing rapidly, mostly at IE and Firefox’s expense.

Clearly, it is not as feature rich as Firefox. The bountiful plug-ins that are available with Firefox for the most part do not exist with Chrome. However, some Chrome plug-ins do exist. My suspicion is that a good part of the Firefox plug-in community is already working on Chrome compatible plug-ins. As a web developer, I need the amazingly excellent plug-in called Firebug for Chrome. I sure hope it is being ported, although Chrome comes with some built in developer features that are quite decent.

The average user will just notice Chrome’s rendering speed, which tends toward blazingly quick. I had no idea so much of the slowness in Firefox was just its code trying to make everything look pretty. Of course, if the Internet is slow or congested, no browser will speed it up, but whatever Chrome is doing to render content quickly it is doing very well. It helps to have very deep pockets. Since a lot of our content comes from Google, Google can do a lot to put its content on the edge of the network so it will download quickly.

Simplicity and too much intimacy with your favorite browser have a downside. It would be nice, for example, if Chrome would refresh the page by pressing the F5 key, which I have used for the last 15 years. (Instead, it is Ctrl/Command-R.) It would also be nice if my bookmarks would appear on the side, as in Firefox, by pressing Ctrl/Command-B. I also like Firefox’s search box in the top right corner, although by integrating the URL field with search engines you arguably have a simpler interface. Perhaps those features will show up in time. Maybe it would be better if they did not. Simplicity also has a certain virtue. Most of us prefer cars that are simple to use. Too many gizmos and gadgets on the dashboard can make for a confusing experience

Here is hoping that the folks at Mozilla address the instability and page rendering issues so I can go back to it. I hate to give any monolithic company, even one as friendly as Google, all my loyalty. Still, Chrome is compelling in a way IE never was. If you try it for a couple days, you are likely to find yourself also hooked.

Google’s Chrome OS aims to drive a stake in Microsoft’s heart

The Thinker by Rodin

You may not have noticed, but Google seems hell bent on a strategy that it hopes will ultimately kill Microsoft Windows. Many have tried but so far, none have succeeded in toppling the behemoth desktop operating system. Google’s ultimate success in toppling Windows will depend in part on its success convincing people to move their data from their desktop computers into “The Cloud”.

For those of you who are not terribly tech savvy, “The Cloud” refers to the Internet in general, but more specifically to the many data servers attached to the Internet that hold personal and other data for us. You may already have much of your personal data in the cloud and not know it. For example, if you use GMail (Google’s email service), your email is hosted by Google somewhere within its cloud-computing infrastructure. Chances are even Google would have a hard time telling you exactly where your email is stored. It is probably redundantly stored among its hosting centers. Redundant hosting helps ensure that your data is always available.

In fact, there are plenty of vendors outside of Google enamored with “The Cloud” and Microsoft is among them. For example, recently Microsoft announced a stripped down version of its Office Suite for The Cloud. You may not even have to pay to use it, providing you are okay with its limited features, advertising and trust that Microsoft will forever store your personal data. Microsoft is playing catch up. Google has offered Google Docs (its version of a web-ified MS Office) for years. It too is not as feature robust as the Office Suite, but it has certain nice to have features and in most instances is free. Because it exists in The Cloud, it also allows easy sharing of documents and spreadsheets among multiple parties.

If Microsoft’s killer product is Windows, Google’s killer product is not necessarily its search engine, but its ability to maintain a highly available and scalable Internet cloud. These things do not just happen. They require many years of work, research and refinement. The reason cloud computing took off slowly is that building such an infrastructure is hard. Google did it first but there have been other leaders in this field, including Amazon. Amazon, in addition to its ability to sell you pretty much anything online, has been a cloud computing innovator too. It takes a different tack by offering businesses very cheap computing resources on demand.

It takes a while for cloud computing to work up a head of steam, but Google is getting there. For example, the City of Los Angeles will be letting Google host its email services using a commercial version of its GMail service. Whether this will be a stake in the heart of Microsoft Exchange remains to be seen. Exchange is Microsoft’s pricy but widely used business-class email server. It is a complex beast requiring many skilled specialists to keep it going. With email seen as a commodity, cloud services like GMail seem a logical way for a business to save a lot of money.

Even the Department of Interior, where I work, is rethinking email. It is seriously looking at cloud computing as a replacement for its mixture of Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes email servers. Its goal is to complete a department-wide transition by the end of 2010, which seems ambitious to me. It is possible that a year from now when I am sending work related email it will be through a hosted service like GMail rather than Lotus Notes.

It’s a little known fact, but far more email is transmitted across the Internet than web pages. (This may be due to ninety percent of email traffic being spam.) Consequently, a company that can grab a majority of the email market is well positioned to drive the future of the Internet. GMail and Google’s ubiquitous search engine are two feet into the enterprise space that may eventually kill Windows. The next part of Google’s strategy is to control the desktop. What Google is hoping to do is make desktop computing obsolete. If you store all your personal stuff in The Cloud and it is always highly available then what is the point of a big, bloated operating system like Windows, particularly when Windows can take many minutes just to boot up and costs a lot of money to set up and maintain?

To help sell this vision, Google has released its own web browser called Chrome. It’s big selling point is speed. It reputedly renders pages ten times faster than Internet Explorer and is even faster than Firefox, my browser of choice. Its market share is currently quite tiny, and is likely to remain such for the near future. For many people with high-speed Internet connections, faster rendering of web content is very much appreciated. While I like Firefox, it can be slow at times, particularly when you press the back button. If Chrome can do away with such annoyances, I might have a compelling reason to switch browsers.

Google’s strategy for killing Microsoft has two parts: selling people on netbooks and its promised new operating system called Chrome OS. If you are unfamiliar with the term netbook, it is small (generally portable) computer optimized for interacting with the Internet. It deemphasizes storing documents on the netbook. Instead, data is stored in “The Cloud” where presumably it lives longer than you do. To succeed, Google needs to convince you to trust it to not only always retain your data, but to keep it secure and highly available at all times. While Google suffers from widely scattered service problems such as a recent GMail outage, overall its track record is very good and getting better. The Facebook generation seems to be comfortable keeping its data in the cloud. Chrome OS then becomes little more than a very lightweight operating system for Netbooks. It would boot up very quickly, unlike Microsoft Windows. Presumably, Chrome would be the browser of choice for its speed and a virtual desktop operating system as well as an integrated web browser. The netbook becomes really nothing more than a portal for allowing you to interact with all your data in the cloud as well as surf the web.  In some sense, it is a Back to the Future operating system, where netbooks essentially become fancy terminals.

If Google can convince us that desktop computing in the 21st century is for Luddites, then the handwriting in on the wall for Microsoft Windows. Microsoft can try to offer its own netbooks and cloud-computing infrastructure, but it is clearly years behind Google. Nor can it offer a compelling reason for us to stick with the Windows brand in a network-computing world. Why pay for an operating system and software when Google Chrome OS would be (presumably) free, as well as most if not all of its hosted applications? Making Chrome OS available would also encourage software vendors to create their own applications that run under Chrome OS. The result could be an application-centric Internet realized through quick and response web-based applications using Chrome OS.

To the extent you believe in Google’s vision, you may wish to start selling your Microsoft stock for Google stock.