This past week finally saw the unveiling of Google’s long-awaited Chrome OS. Surprising few to none, the big revelation is that Chrome the browser is actually the entire operating system. Using cloud web applications, it will be possible to run a bunch of desktop-ish apps on a Chrome-based netbook at home, then go to work, fire up Chrome on Mac or Windows on your work laptop, and have the same experience there. Pretty snazzy stuff.
It’s yet another take on what cloud-based consumer computing could be (insert “network computing” if you’d like to relive 1996), an heir to the promise of Java and so many others. And it looks to have some legs, even if we’re still quite some ways from seeing commercially available hardware ready to run on it. Many developers will create apps for the platform, and its write-once, read-anywhere (WOMA!) promise is mighty seductive. It would be very easy to imagine a world in which no one develops for traditional desktop operating systems anymore, except for professional applications like video editing and design work. Sounds like bad news for Apple, right?
Not exactly. In fact, the wide proliferation of cloud applications with addressable APIs is just about the best thing that’s ever happened to Mac development since the launch of OS X. Increasingly, our data does live in the cloud, in addition to on our hard drives. But that doesn’t mean we need to interact with it out there. The iOS app ecosystem is clear evidence of that. Nearly all of them provide a nice, native interface to a cloud-based data set that can be addressed through a browser but isn’t as nice inside of one.
The same can be true for the Mac. Even as the web has eroded a lot of the traditional functions of the desktop OS, there is still a burning need for great UI that the vast majority of web apps, even Chrome, can’t deliver upon. I know that an increasing number of my favorite Mac apps are largely front ends for a far more complex web-based back end. MarsEdit for blogging, Reeder for RSS, Tweetie for Twitter, iCal for scheduling and others. In fact, the more successful ChromeOS becomes at getting people into the cloud, the more opportunities for native Mac clients there might turn out to be.
If anything, the ubiquity of the web has clarified what the most important user tasks are: social media, e-mail, web publishing, research, sharing of all kinds, rich media downloads. Now it’s incumbent on Mac developers to build beautiful and elegant ways to interact with those data sets. The coming of the Mac App Store is not a sign that our Macs will soon be locked down to Apple’s draconian standards. If anything, it will bring a tidal wave of great applications from under-appreciated developers. The coming of the cloud will be downright sunny in Cupertino.
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