Sep 13, 2008

Tech - Closing the gates on windows

Google’s Chrome is another link in its strategy to use the net for popularising free online applications to supersede the traditional and expensive desktop computing model.

Until a few years ago, mainstream media (MSM) editors insisted the expansion of “FAQs” be provided when the term was used. Nowadays, faqs require no explanation. “FOSS” is another acronym heading in the same direction though MSM editors still insist on explaining that it stands for Free (and) Open Source Software.
Even if Foss supposedly requires expansion, the concepts have gone mainstream. A substantial portion of large global enterprise and all the world’s small businesses and individual IT users depend on Foss.
The term embodies two different related concepts. Free software need not be open source and open source software may not be free. For example, Microsoft offers a free but not open source browser (Internet Explorer) and Red Hat offers open source applications that it charges for.
But most frequently, Foss is both free and open source. That is, it can be downloaded and distributed freely without payment and the source code is also freely available for anybody to tinker with. Foss has changed computing paradigms.
Enter Chrome. The browser from Google is deliberately misnamed because it uses a minimum of “chrome”, which is what the look and feel of a browser is called. Chrome rides the trend of increasing dependence on Foss and other trends in communication technologies that suggest the imminent superseding of the traditional desktop computing model.
Chrome “sells” on the USP of being fast and uncluttered. It was marketed through an operating manual distributed in the form of a downloadable comic book. Reportedly, over 40 million users downloaded Chrome within the first 12 hours of release.
The browser is fast and easy on the eye because it dispenses with pull-down menus. Instead, there’s an “omnibar” where anything (urls, searches) can be typed. There’s a wrench-icon, which tweaks functionalities and an “incognito” option that allows more secure browser windows or tabs to be opened.
While average reviews have been positive, power users have had mixed reactions. There are many grey areas in current functionality. The most glaring is the lack of Linux and Mac versions, though rollouts are expected soon.
The initial End-user license agreement (EULA) gave Google copyright claims to practically any content created through Chrome. That was fixed within 24 hours (with retrospective effect for initial downloads). But there are a dozen known security holes and exploits were published very quickly. Google may have fixed some with its first security update, a week after the initial release.
While Java works quickly where it works, and the multimedia viewer experience is good on sites like YouTube, there is an absence of plug-ins that allow all java-enabled sites to work. There is also an absence of plug-ins like RealPlayer that allow one-click downloads of flash video and other multimedia content. Since Chrome is open-source, these problems will presumably be fixed fairly quickly by independent developers, if not by the Google team itself.
Reliance on the global software development community is the foundation of the open source paradigm. The logic is that, if a global community of IT developers has access to source code, holes in security and gaps in functionality are rectified quickly. The argument is that a Microsoft, with its mere 70,000-odd employees, cannot compete with a global IT ecosystem where 300 million geeks are continuously writing code.
In fact, open source may be eventually more secure and have wider functionality than closed systems developed by corporates. This is true for Mozilla’s popular browser Firefox, which has grabbed 20 per cent market share because it is clearly better than Internet Explorer. It has worked for the many flavours of Linux (Ubuntu, RedHat, Knoppix, Debian, etc).
Firefox rides on a multitude of plug-ins and add-ons written by independents. Linux distributions have become more popular as independents have developed better graphic-user interfaces (GUI) and written more applications for those platforms.
Beyond functionality and security, the killer advantage for Foss is price. The software on a PC running a legal Windows OS with MS Office bundled will cost upwards of $400. The software on a PC running a Linux distribution with Open Office costs zero and offers the same functionality and probably, better online security.
The Foss paradigm has been extended further by greater broadband penetration and commoditisation of cheap server space and bandwidth. You no longer need fancy high-end hardware to run common applications.
It started with free webmail but the concept has now extended much further. Free versions of office applications are available on the Internet (Google Documents for example) and so is vast amounts of free space where you can store content. Even software developer tools are available and of course, multimedia applications as well. All you now need is a basic device and a reliable broadband connection to get you online; after that, you can work, play games or watch videos to your heart’s content.
This is cloud computing. Information is stored on the Internet and accessed as required through a variety of devices. Services are provided for users who may not own any of the infrastructure or understand any of the technology.
Instead of charging large sums upfront as traditional products do, the providers of these IT services generate revenues from the online presence and actions of their users. Some may charge small sums on per-use basis. Also, when a user checks out an online ad or buys something, a small percentage may accrue to the service provider. Of course, since the service providers know user behaviour and consumption patterns, they can tailor offerings better and reach deeper into the consumers’ wallet.
As broadband penetration increases (in India, the next big jump will be via 3G) and more applications are available for free, this trend of doing everything online will become more pronounced. The conventional paid-OS and applications sitting on a high-end desktop will be rendered irrelevant.
Google recognised this trend earlier than most companies. Its dominance of the Net and its strategy for the future is based on trying to leverage that greater understanding. Google hopes that you will be online 24x7, using its browser, employing its webmail and gTalk chat, interacting with friends on the social networks it owns, blogging on the free space it provides, watching and uploading videos on YouTube, using its online office applications, writing applications on Gears, etc.
It does not charge the user for any of this. It probably never will. It doesn’t need to. The revenues will accrue from the things users do. The revenues will also accrue from the leverage Google possesses vis-a-vis other businesses because it influences and controls your online actions.
A long time ago, AOL built a multi-billion business out of providing a “walled garden” that connected to the wider world of the Web. That wall has long been dismantled. If Google is successful, it will become the game-warden of the wide open world of Web 2.0 and of subsequent versions of the Net.

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