One thing that strikes me about Chrome OS and Litl is that neither bother trying to do everything Windows or Mac OS X can do. Not even close. I don’t think either even bothers trying to serve as one’s primary computer.
The idea that they’re designed to serve as secondary computers is a big part of the opportunity I see for new Web-focused OSes. I think that’s one of the implicit factors that define what people call “netbooks”. How many people use one of those as their one and only computer?
If you start with the assumption that a computer will be a secondary machine — something purchased because it’s cheaper, smaller, and lighter — you can make all sorts of different assumptions about what it needs to be capable of.
In the early part of this decade, Apple’s turnaround under Steve Jobs was based on the concept of the Mac as a “digital hub” — a device to which you connect and manage satellite devices like iPods and cameras.1 If you have more than one computer, why should the secondary computer (or computers) need to be just as capable — and just as complex, expensive, power-hungry, and heavy — as your primary one? Why should it run the same OS?
The idea of a computer that does a lot less — leaving out even things you consider essential, because you can still do those things on your other, primary computer — is liberating. That’s the opportunity, and that’s the idea behind Chrome OS and Litl and even Android and iPhone OS.
Long-term, there’s no denying that Google is steering toward a future where typical users have no “primary” computer, but instead where every computer is just a terminal to Web-based software running on servers across the Internet. But there’s an opportunity today for secondary computers that offer just a subset of the functionality of Mac OS X and Windows, especially if they don’t just do less, but (like the iPhone) do less really well.
Here’s a YouTube clip of Steve Jobs introducing Apple’s “digital hub” strategy in his January 2001 Macworld Expo keynote. It’s sort of mind-blowing — both in terms of the prescience of the strategy itself and just how long ago it seems. There was no such thing as an iPod yet, Mac OS X 10.0 was still two months away from shipping, and, talking about digital cameras, Jobs mentions that they then accounted for 15 percent of the camera market but would “soon” account for 50 percent. ↩