Google's Chrome OS, Cloud-oriented Computing, and User Freedom; or The Emperor has No Clothes!

Google has recently announced their plan to release a new open source operating system called Chrome OS, which they hope to make freely available by mid 2010. A quick review of write-ups about Google's announcement (like this piece by Miguel Helft and Ashlee Vance in the New York Times) reveals that many view the proposed Chrome OS to be an innovative approach to desktop computing, since the idea is to make Google's Chrome browser the focus of the operating system. With little or no native applications to bog it down, Chrome OS would thus provide the user with quick access to the Internet, and nearly all computing tasks would take place through web applications such as Google Docs and Picasa.

It might first seem counter-intuitive, but by giving away Chrome OS and their web services, Google will ultimately grow their business. Google makes its money from targeted advertising. Widespread usage of Chrome OS would mean that more people would be doing their computing in the clouds , which would in turn provide Google greater opportunities to offer more precisely targeted advertisements at a greater quantity, and hence greater opportunity to increase revenue.

If Google's cloud-centric operating system catches on, it will most certainly pose a challenge to businesses that currently sell traditional desktop operating systems, such as Microsoft and Apple. With an orientation on native rather than web-based applications (e.g. Word, Windows Media Player/Quicktime, iPhoto, etc.), Windows and OS X stand in the way of Google making more money, since the more time one spends on those native applications, the less time one spends online using Google's web-based services. By offering Chrome OS for free, Google undercuts Windows, OS X, and their expensive software, driving consumers to use Google's services instead.

All this might sound like a big win for the consumer, since he or she will get to use quality applications on a purportedly more reliable and efficient operating system at no cost. Under any ordinary circumstance, who could argue with that? But herein lies the problem. This is no ordinary circumstance. We're now dealing with cloud-oriented computing, and with this, free comes at a high price.

Cloud computing can be quite useful. However, to make an operating system completely dependent upon web services for its most basic functions poses certain dangers to the user. First, all one's computing becomes dependent on having an Internet connection, which means one must have an Internet service provider in order to utilize the system to its fullest potential. Google will likely further develop Google Gears, which currently allows the user to work with certain web-based applications offline, but it will probably never be able to provide the same functionality to web-based applications as one has with native applications. So for those who don't want or can't afford to pay for an Internet connection (yes, I know, this is a small demographic in many nations), or for those who have no access to the internet for an extended period of time, Chrome OS would appear to be practically useless. Even for those who have an Internet connection, why would they want to have that cost become an inherent part of their ability to use their computer?

Second, it isn't clear whether one will have the ability to write and run non-web-based applications on one's computer. Google may allow for such a feature, but it will probably be disabled by default, seriously restricted, or come at a price. These applications will compete for the user's time, which he or she would otherwise spend using the web-based applications that bring Google revenue. So the freedom of the user to write his or her own program and run it on his or her computer the way he or she sees fit will likely be restricted or taken away.

Finally, cloud-oriented computing means that one's private data will not (only?) be on your personal hard drive, but it will (also?) be sitting on the hard drive of some third party server, meaning God-knows-who could have access to your private information, doing God-knows-what with it. This raises a series of important related questions: is data in the clouds ultimately public? We're talking about a centralized storage location that contains very intimate details about the lives and dealings of billions of people the world over. This places unthinkable power in the hands of who or whatever owns that centralized storage location. If the information is there for another to be accessed, in what sense is it still private information? Do the storage location owners only own the storage, or can they lay any claim to the contents of the storage, as well? What can they do with the information, and who or what is to stop them if they try to do something with it that they shouldn't? Certainly the private/public distinction begins to get blurred; at the very least, this would involve having limited control over any personal information stored in the cloud. And when all or nearly all one's computing takes place in the cloud, one would have limited control over a large bulk of that information.

When all is said and done, the Chrome OS platform may end up being cheaper, more efficient, and more innovative than Windows or OS X. It may be built around the Linux kernel. It may also be touted as a free/libre open source project, but it cannot help but result in an arrangement that is at least as equally unethical as the arrangement between proprietary software companies and their end users, since users will end up surrendering to their service provider a modest amount of control over system functionality, as well as security of personal data. Chrome OS may be free/libre open source in name and in practice, but the very nature of the relationship between user and provider that cloud-centric computing fosters entails that it cannot be fee/libre open source in spirit.

Creative Commons License
Google's Chrome OS, Cloud-oriented Computing, and User Freedom; or The Emperor has No Clothes! by Nathan M. Blackerby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.