Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chrome OS vs. The Tablet

So a lot has happened over the last year in the mobile tech space -- the first iPad was released, iPhone 4 came out, Android has spent the year racking up market share, Windows Phone 7 started selling and many other tablet-like devices are now being teased about from lots of companies including Samsung and RIM.

Tonight, when attempting to open Chrome using Quicksilver (yes, I still use Quicksilver - it's awesome!), I accidentally opened a document sitting on my hard drive written on January 3rd, 2010. This file was a draft of an article I was hoping to put on the blog around that time. Well, apparently I forgot about it and it's been collecting dust ever since.

Almost a year later, I just read through it and was surprised how prescient it turned out to be. Just as a matter of interest, I've included it below. Keep in mind that at the time it was written, we hadn't seen the iPad and had only recently seen teasers of the Chrome OS.

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I think we can all agree that there's tablet craziness going on, with everyone and their brother making predictions about the new device. I'm not going to do that.

Instead, I'd like to think about the tablet from another vantage point - what it will likely represent and who its competitors likely are. I was thinking about this when I read Ars Technica's Google interview on Chrome OS. Something that I've sort of known in the back of my head for a while started to become clear - the Tablet is probably meant to compete in the same category as netbooks and Chrome OS. For those unfamiliar with the term, netbooks are small, light-weight, long battery life computers primarily used for internet software. Chrome OS is Google's operating system meant to run on netbooks and provide a Google experience where everything essentially runs like tabs in a browser - it's meant to replace Windows.

Now, having said that, I think it's interesting to note that netbooks and Chrome OS are really just an extension of the current UI paradigm of a mouse and standard keyboard. As such, they have to deal with a problem that the Tablet will not face - confusion about what people are getting. Is it just a small laptop? If so, why can't I install the same applications I use on my PC?"

Matthew Papakipos from Google pretty much sums it up in the interview:
"There was this thing last Christmas where OEMs sold a lot of machines that weren't running Windows and ended up getting a high return rate because they weren't very clear in their advertising and materials on the box about the fact that Windows wasn't on there. So people would bring it home and say, "Oh, I'm going to install World of Warcraft" and they'd go "Wait a minute, what is this?"

So there was some stuff like that out there. The thing that this has convinced us of is that we need to be really clear with people when they buy a Chrome OS machine that it's not a Windows machine. We do need to be really clear about that. We don't want you to end up getting a machine for Christmas and it's not one that's going to work out for you.

If you want a Windows machine you should buy a Windows machine. If you really want to use Photoshop, you should buy a Windows workstation.

But it is challenging—we haven't figured this all out. We really need to make it clear to you when you buy a machine online or in a store that this is a Web machine; it's not a Windows machine. It doesn't run Photoshop, it doesn't run WoW. What it does is get on the Web. And a lot of that we're still figuring out."

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You see, by design, this isn't a problem that Apple has to deal with. The Tablet will likely look more like a large iPhone (a well-recognized brand unto itself) than a laptop. And the software running on it will look more like iPhone software than Windows. So all someone has to do is look at this thing and know - that's not a small laptop.

I often find that when I'm working (designing, coding, or even building a room in my basement), if I hit a situation where things just don't feel right - there's a reason for it. I start to think I should really question some notions that I'm taking for granted and take an alternate route. In the quote above, I feel that same friction. The voice in my head is saying "What about the design that I've chosen is causing this issue? Where can I fundamentally re-think my design so that this goes away?"

So, as a tip to Google, I'd like to offer the notion that will likely hit them if it hasn't already - Apple has already figured out the answer to this problem and you're likely going to adapt the Android OS to follow its lead.