Google Chrome. Everybody is talking about it, and no wonder: your web browser is the single most important piece of software in your computer, it is the lens through which you experience whatever you do on the internet. In a sense — and this what Google's betting, real hard — nowadays your web browser is your OS. Think about it. Using web applications, 95% of the things you did with that Pentium you had ten years ago can now be done in your browser. Plus a whole lot more. So, the same way it was — and still is — a (sadly very common) act of gross mismanagement for many offices to spend 1000 in hugely powerful computers and then buying Microsoft Office licenses to write some letters when very usable 300 Linux PCs and OpenOffice have been around for years, now you should slowly begin to wonder if an OS — let alone Windows — is something you need — again, let alone pay for.
So. My first impression of Chrome is: impressive. It's incredibly usable for a very early 0.2 release. In fact, I used it all day today, and even though I'm very much on the brink of starting to miss my Firefox extensions, I don't think I'll ever look at Firefox 3.0 as The Browser again: for starters, Chrome is the fastest shit ever. In my Quad-core Black Tower of Power, at least. I did a small test: I pressed the Firefox keyboard shortcut, then double-clicked in the Chrome desktop icon. My homepage was fully loaded in Chrome by the time the Firefox window made its appearance. I closed both programs, and then tried again. Same result. And no, I haven't got that many extensions installed in Firefox. In my three-year old laptop, Chrome didn't display the same Usain Bolt-like superiority, but was still pretty quick. Then I quite like the lean look, and the way the hybrid URL/search box works. For now, I'm pretty happy in trading the use of some of my Firefox extensions for that. I'll see how I feel about it tomorrow.
Therefore I can really imagine Chrome being a success. At version 0.2, it compares pretty well against Firefox 3.0. I haven't tried Opera in, what?, six major versions, and I'll just say I dislike Safari (although, I do like the way Safari renders type) and really, really — big news — dislike Internet Explorer 7. Even though I should (in my capacity as intermittent webdesigner), I'm not bothered to take a look at IE8. I just read somewhere it's heavier than the entire Windows XP and became nauseous. I'll use it whenever Microsoft force-feeds it down my Windows' throat.
Anyway, the important thing is: when you can buy 250 mini-laptops designed for web browsing, when there are motherboards that come with Linux and Firefox in a chip that dispenses the need for an OS if all you want to do is browse the web, then you got, say, fifty percent of home computer users and an even larger share of corporate users not really needing an OS (add consoles and media center thingies into the mix, and a whole lot more home users don't need an OS). This leaves the need of an OS for people who work with heavy data, who need a lot of CPU cycles — such as those working in multimedia — where Windows users might even be a minority — it certainly feels like that! And leaves the giant Microsoft in a unconfortable, irrelevant place.
Of course, much of the situation is Microsoft's own fault. Just take a look at Vista, that Megafortress of Bloat. Here's a shocking revelation of the kind of shit Vista offers me daily: Google Chrome starts up faster than Windows Explorer. All because I installed a thingy called QTTabBar that adds tabbed browsing to Windows Explorer (a feature so unquestionable basic and handy Microsoft chose to spend their resources in designing big shiny icons instead). Like most simple Windows apps nowadays, it relies in something called Net Framework, which, as you may notice when the update is force-fed on your computer, is a several Terabytes download (it certainly felt that way). The result is that my 2.5GHz Quad-core with 4GB of RAM takes almost as much time opening an improved Windows Explorer with tabs as it would loading it off a Spectrum cassette tape. You could blame the app's developer, of course, but then you take a look at the size and contents of Vista's C:\Windows folder and you realize it's all spaghetti cables held with tape, and pity whoever takes programming as a hobby.
There are obvious virtues to local processing and local storage when you consider the whole concept of cloud computing (then again, I can lose all my data in a fire, but at least it was my fire). Besides the fact local storage is more affordable than bandwidth, there are the issues of control. Chrome is done by a giant corporation, not that much evil, but neverthless with a less-than-stellar record of censorship and pandering to dictatorships, etecetera. But as ACB pointed out, Chrome is open-source (certainly the riskier part of Google's plan — although I doubt Microsoft could ever do Chrome without ruining it), so you can trust its code to be sooner or later audited by unbiased people. But the thing is, OSes do seem a model in decline. Vista is a spectacular failure — it takes one full gigabyte after boot up (compared to my XP laptop's 200 megs), and why is that? An OS should be a thing that manages windows and files, and my 512KB Amiga used to do just that — What the fuck, Microsoft? Then there's Apple Leopard, which has some problems of its own. And Linux, one big happy zoo — Ubuntu is good but more designers are still required.
The consequence: Most people running branded Chromes and Firefoxes off flashable (updateable) chips in the motherboards of their mini-laptops and HDTVs, saving a few private files and their settings to their thumbdrive 'digital souls' but otherwise content to let their docs hang in the Google Docs or Zoho cloud, their media in YouTube and Flickr. Apple OSes will keep the specialized design and multimedia market, because their stuff looks shiny and pretty and the glow-in-the-dark apple sillouette is like the Mercedes Benz tri-pointed star for people who dislike status symbols — in automobiles, that is. Some brand of Linux will be the hobbyist's choice (much like nowdays, if you think about it). And then Microsoft, same as ever — the Katamari Damacy of Bloat — but now because keeping backwards compatibility while growing into the next cycle is their only chance at survival — milking that corporate cow that has somehow managed to bring COBOL well into the 21st century.
A note: A couple of days before Chrome itself, Google released a comic-book presentation of their new browser. I actually found myself absorbed in the eloquent explanations of the functioning of browsers and computers, including a few things I had trouble grasping before. Well done.¶