Fifteen years ago if you wanted to write an application that would run on over 90% of the world’s personal computers, you only needed to target one OS. Today, to do the same, you’d need to develop for ten - Windows, Linux, OS X, Android, iOS, webOS, BlackBerry OS, Symbian, MeeGo and of course, the web.

You don’t get order without first having chaos and you don’t end up with consolidation without first going through fragmentation. The PC era was dominated by Microsoft and Intel. The transition to ubiquitous computing allowed for many more competitors, which results in a great deal of fragmentation up front.

The goal however, is the same. Every player in this space wants to be what Microsoft was during the PC era. Even the actions are the same. There’s no interoperability between platforms, there are closed door negotiations and exclusivity agreements resulting in a number of alliances that are not easily broken.

Microsoft’s leverage is existing revenue stream. Its partners want to continue to receive favorable terms for existing PC shipments and thus tend to avoid embracing Google or other non-Microsoft OSes too eagerly. Google’s leverage is the promise of a very un-Microsoft future. Lower costs, friendlier terms and the ability for its partners to get in on the ground floor of something big. Neither approach is guaranteed and aligning yourself with one company is risky. The rest of the players are vertically integrated hardware vendors that are trying to mimic the success that Apple has had with iOS and OS X (e.g. HP/Palm, RIM). MeeGo is the only exception there as Intel/Nokia want it to be treated as an alternative to Android.

Then there’s the web. The most universal of all of the platforms, the web isn’t controlled or dominated by any one company. Great open source browser projects have ensured that nearly all of the platforms I listed above have great ways to access the web, and most can run any app you’ve got on the web.

PCs are the more traditional portal to the web. Sure they can do much more than run a web browser, but as web applications and services grow more powerful, the list of things you have to do outside of a browser window shrinks. This is especially true for mainstream consumers who check their email in a web browser, get their news in a web browser, chat in a web browser, watch videos in a web browser and listen to music, all within a browser window. In fact, the netbook was born out of the idea that you don’t need a huge transistor budget to provide the silicon that can drive a browser and the apps you run on top of it.

Fifteen years ago most households had one computer, if that. These days you might have five within a single room (desktop, notebook, smartphone, media streaming box and tablet). Households didn’t become infinitely more wealthy over the past two decades - the cost of these secondary and tertiary computing devices just dropped. Moore’s Law enables two things: more processing power at the same cost, or equivalent processing power at a lower cost. Iterate the Law a few times and you’ll eventually be able to create silicon that’s fast enough for specific tasks at a very low cost. Shrinking transistor feature sizes, costs and high levels of silicon integration gave us the fast enough ARM based SoCs that enable today’s awesome smartphones, as well as the Atom processor that created the netbook industry.

Interestingly enough, the problems that impact the high end of the market also impact this fast enough segment of the market. At the high end we’ve got tons of compute, storage and IOPS thanks to multicore CPUs/GPUs, low memory costs and SSDs, but we don’t have a lot of software to really tax it all. Believe it or not, the same gap exists at the low end. The difference is that while Atom is more than fast enough to run a web browser, it’s typically burdened by a heavy weight OS that hampers the user experience.

Microsoft’s Inaction & Learning from Our Mistakes
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  • Incognitus - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    So, what you get is a crippled computer for the price of a real one that is locked into a walled garden software environment controlled by a company that build its business model on digging personal data, while effectively re-introducing the dial-up era "pay-per-use" model of old ?

    Sorry, maybe I have not drunken enough cool aid to see why this is great for any user.

    One can only hope that MS stays in business and true to a business model that actually makes a PC a device that INCREASES freedom. And boy, if you would have told me 10 years ago that one time MS would become the last line of defense when it comes to freedom and privacy, I would have laughed you out of the door.
  • andrewbuchanan - Friday, December 10, 2010 - link

    Lol. how true.
  • Murst - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    Anand -

    Your comments about the performance hit due to Win7 seems to go directly against the comments about Moore's law.

    If Moore's law continues to apply, we should continue seeing massive performance increases in Netbooks at the same price points. By the end of next year (probably), it should mean that Netbooks should have absolutely no problem running Win7 (even if price continues to drop, it can't keep on dropping forever ). If that's the case, the performance advantage of Chrome OS disappears.

    It just seems like there was a market for Chrome OS, but Google was a couple years too slow. If this was released a couple years ago, it could have made a huge difference. However, if performance will no longer be a problem for Netbooks running Win7, the advantages of something like Chrome OS aren't so clear, especially at the same price points.
  • Spivonious - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    Isn't Google giving away the OS somewhat anticompetitive? Apple and MS can't compete with that.

    Also, $400 is just way too much for what 1990s Sun would call an Internet appliance. For the same $400 I can get a CULV laptop and get a much better experience.
  • Zorblack1 - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    So I can spend $50 more and get a netbook with Windows and DL Chrome and get the same experience + windows. What a joke.

    However that said the idea of a complete browser based OS is interesting and headed towards the future.

    Data rates in the US are outragous. They should never be refered to as reasonable even if they are inline with current pricing (raping?).
  • Radicchio - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    As I see it, one big advantage of Chrome is the 'stateless' PC in that if you lose your laptop or it is corrupted, it will automatically download a new boot image and as soon as you log in, restore all your apps and settings.

    Windows 7 already provides very this functionality for your Office 2007 settings and Favourites via Live Mesh. What I would like to see is this extended so the entire user profile (up to 5GB) is synchronised automatically and transparently: if my laptop hard drive fails I still need to reinstall Win 7 and my apps, but I then log into Mesh and everything is restored.

    A small service running the Windows Easy Transfer utility and Mesh is all that is required and this would also be an ideal way to deal with the build-up of 'Windows cruft'...
  • ABR - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    I don't get the "it's not the apps, it's the OS" argument. It might be that Windows bogs things down a lot by itself, but in most cases the reason for all the swapping, etc. is -- guess what -- the web browser. Web browsers increasingly attempt to provide a whole OS's worth of GUI and document manipulation possibilities, which are effectively layered over the same stuff provided by the OS. But because of constraints or unplanned development by small teams or whatever else, they've never been particularly efficient. It's not uncommon to see browsers consuming dozens of megabytes per tab. That's millions of bytes of information for a far less interactive display than provided by a typical desktop app.

    This is why Apple took the opposite approach with iOS: apps have only one layer of highly-optimized API before getting to the low-level OS and then the hardware. The smoothness i-devices have over others with better hardware is the result.

    But in computing, the higher-level model always wins, because hardware overtakes any inefficiency. The Chrome approach might be the future, but it will be in spite of bloat, not because of reducing it.
  • wumpus - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    The opening statement claimed that you could reach 90% of personal computers in 1996 by writing for one OS seems unlikely. You could probably run a DOS program on 90%, but it would be much harder to get win 3.1 and windows95 users to run in the DOS penalty box. I know I still played plenty of games (Quake 1 and I'm sure plenty of glade games) in DOS but I think your hypothetical program would get more users if built for win3.1 (but would not be possible on >10% of boxes).
  • andrewbuchanan - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    I'd rather have a notebook with windows and run chrome in it.

    And at 12" you can get a notebook. Might cost alot more than $400, but it'd be able to do alot more as well.

    Also the new amd atom alternatives should be fast enough to run windows 7 better and still fall into the $400 price range.
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, December 9, 2010 - link

    This is really fascinating! If you trust Google this is.. dare I say the holy grail of computing? A system which just works and which is capable of almost any task most people need to do. Nevermind the curretn hardware implementation, cost for data transfer etc... this could change / improve any day.

    Just forget your well managed, high performance main rig for a moment and consider Joe Sixpack in all his computer-illiterate clumsy-ness and what this could do for him!

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