chrome os, wave, collaboration

Something in the news says Chrome OS got a demo today. I don’t even care, since I don’t think what’s being demonstrated — a glorified PDA with internet connection — is, by itself, very interesting. What’s important is what runs on it that can’t be run in another way or with as much ease. What might that be? It seems to me this “novel experience” (not necessarily novel technology) is in the roadmap of Google and other big companies — but only in pieces spread among them, with none of them seeming to have the entirety of it. And that is ridiculous…

So Google has the ideas. Microsoft has the delivery mechanism in the form of the installed base and the ready platform with the ability to propogate via a simple update. Apple has the hardware designs and marketing to get people to adopt. Yet, each is missing the critical pieces held by others. And so we stall in Year 2009 as each company tries to replicate some existing thing that another company is already good at.

(This very good article gives too much credit to Google, I believe. The situation is a lot more symmetrical and Google should not be elevated to a privileged position. The current Chrome OS for netbooks, I believe, is a clear misread of the market. People want a better phone, not a worse computer, and Google will likely fail with this if they make the latter without the former (Android?) catching on first. I think the “PC companies” are not that far behind either. It’s much harder for inexperienced Google to make a good cloud client than for say Microsoft to deliver good cloud integration. In some sense, Microsoft’s lack of execution on this front is due to politics, i.e. lack of will-power to lose a cash cow until it is inevitable, not due to technical barriers.)

Which leads me to this envisioned usage scenario that (1) is actually useful/productive and (2) could really benefit from cloud integration rather than be a poor knock-off of existing desktop programs. It’s actually simple and not novel at all. In fact it has been talked about for decades, but it still cannot be done today (with commonplace hardware and software). Why? If something as simple as this and that should be achievable overnight (technology is there) isn’t even available, then forget about real innovation.

So let me make it very concrete. I take out a piece of hardware — it is a tablet. I would like to write a paper. But I have coauthors. So I start a new document — maybe it’s for writing LaTeX. I start writing — with a pen — or I type, whatever. At some point I decide I want collaboration, so maybe I turn this into a “collaboration” mode. Think of this as going to a public space to write on the whiteboard. Now anybody can see this in progress, in real time, not as its autosaved version, if open up the same program of theirs and I’m on their collaborator list or something. Maybe I tell them out of band that I want to collaborate or they already know. They can request to join, and I can let them, and even add them to the list of collaborators for this document (or project, as every document should be automatically versioned into a project tree). They can edit at the same time as I edit, and each person can see what the other person is doing, if they just went to the right part of the document to look. The part you are editing can be locked if you wish. Or you can lock other parts, doesn’t matter. You can make comments on the margins. You can run a view of the current snapshot any time, without interfering with other editors. At any time, you can save a state as a satisfactory “version”. References can be added by dropping anything — PDF, URL, some search text — and the editor can go look for the reference and turn it into the right format, and cache it into your library of references. If you want to draw figures, you should be able to do it in place, with a pen, and it will be turned into nice figures (discussed separately before)… etc. etc.

It would be even nicer if existing applications can acquire collaboration and versioning abilities simply by the operating system seamlessly supporting things like online storage, multiple inputs, and even more interesting file storage, tagging, linking, and presentation of such information.

Instead, what we get is this and this and this and the like.

Google has “wave”, which gets the “real-time collaboration” piece of the puzzle. Microsoft should be able to modify the OS to take care of existing applications and make online storage seamless (still no integrated network drive in 2009, incredibly). Apple should make a useable tablet (rumored as it is) as a form factor that people can like. But what we will get, I’m almost sure, will be half-baked versions of all of these and they won’t work together. Now, although Chrome OS seems to disown local hardware and software in favor of a crackling, slow, and flaky internet pipe, a decision that I do not believe is ideal at this time, I can at least see it work out eventually. But this depends on Chrome OS enabling collaboration — something so well matched to cloud integration — so a value proposition could be made for using it. If they do not even do this, I would consider them incompetent.

As a (long) footenote, I would like to say that big companies these days have regressed in terms of being bold with innovation — understandable, given the environment — but still disappointing considering the pace of change in the 1990′s. Look at the state of affairs:

- Microsoft has the vast reserves of technical expertise and vendor sway to do some great things, but it has already turned into another IBM — sucking on the teats of enterprise — and long forgotten the consumer. Innovation, if it can be called that, comes in the form of cheap me-too projects.

- Apple with its fashionable packaged goods and excellent marketing certainly has the ear of the consumer but rip away the covers of any product and it doesn’t do anything that hasn’t already been done with uglier hardware. The proprietary locking of hardware and expense also funnel third-party development into mostly useless crapwhere and jokeware.

- Google has put out the most ideas with at least a modicum of novelty in recent years, but lately its resources have clearly been put into some kind of positioning game for some impending fight for becoming the platform of choice. Or perhaps existing pieces have gotten too big or complex that it takes so much overhead to manage, who knows. Its latest products have not been bold, Chrome OS included — I mean they are good, even better than what exists perhaps, but not outright bold and not convincing, always leaving a lingering feeling of what-if.

- Facebook and Amazon? Beyond their respective primary business, they are still nothing, though they are looking for ideas.

I’m actually hoping I am entirely wrong and this is the calm before the storm of massive transformation. But I’m waiting…

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