SHIFT: Google Chrome signals the death of the Operating System

Someday soon, you may not even notice which operating system your computer is using. That broadband-connected machine may not have an operating system on board at all, at least not like Windows and Mac OS X are today. That's because there's a new kid on the block, but he's not even on your block at all, but storing your data and running applications based somewhere else, out there, on the Internet — or as it's more commonly referred to, "in the cloud."

Google's doing all it can to expedite that exodus, pounding its latest nail into the coffin of conventional earth-bound operating systems with a web browser called Chrome. With architecture that runs Javascript web applications as separate services, it's fast, and primed to make it easier to compute in the cloud. This could be the beginning of the end of the operating system as we know it, and that won't come a moment too soon.

Head in the clouds
Some applications are tailor-made for cloud computing, and the best, most popular example of that is Gmail. You access Gmail's interface in any browser, and all your email is stored on Google's servers, giving you 7GB of free storage for all your messages and their associated attachments. Using Google's renowned search prowess, you can easily find important info in those emails using simple keywords. Even better, you don't need to worry about backing up anything, and you can access your email from just about any connected computer, as long as it has a browser.

The best part of Gmail's cloud computing: tapping into the wisdom of crowds. With Gmail, you'll never have to deal with spam again, because Gmail's millions of users each have the ability to report spam, instantly inoculating all the other users from it. The downside: there are ads running down the right side of every email you receive, but it gets to the point where you never even notice them.

Enter Chrome
The benefits of cloud computing are extending far beyond Gmail, with useful apps such as entire Microsoft Office-like application suites Zoho Office Suite and ThinkFree Office, a free online version of Adobe Photoshop, powerful FitDay weight loss software, Quicken Online for personal finance, and a whole lot more mostly free choices. Here's where Google Chrome comes in. With its ultra-fast compartmentalized approach to running Javascript, the programming language that makes all this neato stuff happen, Chrome makes Javascript a much more attractive platform. Chrome is so powerful, even in its infancy, it breathes new life into Javascript, maybe even pushing aside Adobe Flash and its nascent competitor, Microsoft's Silverlight.

But wait just a second here. Javascript and its streamlined underpinnings in Chrome (and also in upcoming versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer) is not going to completely render operating systems such as Mac OS X, Windows XP, Vista, and Linux obsolete. When running many office-like apps, it'll just make the OS invisible, and some users will stop caring which OS they're running. But that's true only to a point.

Down to Earth
Some applications need to stay close to the hardware, right there on the desktop because of the current impracticality of moving huge amounts of data over the Internet. Games with huge graphics files that must be processed quickly will stay on the desktop for now, high-def video editing applications need to stay local because the gigantic file sizes involved, and for now, processor-intensive apps such as speech recognition do best on the desktop.

Mind your own business
Then there are the security issues. A large number of users aren't comfortable with all their most sensitive data residing on a far-away server that's beyond their control. What if a hacker breaks into a server farm and steals all their data, or what if the government insists on Google giving up that data? The IT departments in many corporations will never submit to a loss of control as significant as this. But for me, I trust Google, am not a vice-presidential candidate, and figure that if the government wants any of my personal data, it can grab it from me at home easier than it can extract it from Google's servers.

Cloud wins in the end
Given all that, the cloud still wins in the end, and Chrome leads the way. I don't think Chrome will be loaded onto PCs without an operating system underneath, at least not for a long while. But someday soon, it'll be available cross-platform, and then you could have a Mac in one room, a PC in another, and another machine running Ubuntu in your vacation chalet in the Swiss Alps, and most of your same apps and data could be available on all of them. Beyond that, when U.S. broadband speed and freedom catches up with the rest of the world, we might be able to do all our computing online. Maybe the OS won't die tomorrow, but its importance is already starting to shrink so much, that soon it won't even matter anymore.