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A week after Google released a Web browser of its own called Chrome, it's clear that despite the frailty of Chrome's beta code, there's a seismic shift occurring in the computer industry.
The desktop is dying. Long live the browser.
It's not that no one saw this coming. Microsoft anticipated the threat the browser posed to its desktop monopoly when it killed Netscape. But it was too late. Netscape metastasized and Mozilla emerged with Firefox, stronger than its predecessor thanks to the open source movement and its corporate supporters like Google, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Yahoo.
At least as far back as 2005, there have been credible attempts to de-emphasize the desktop with Web-based media-sharing and application services like TransMedia's Glide. But such efforts have yet to reach critical mass.
Chrome marks the coming of age of cloud computing, or software as a service.
After 10 years as a company, Google has proven that simple, affordable, easy-to-use browser-based services and applications represent a viable alternative to sophisticated, expensive, high-performance, high-maintenance desktop applications. So, too, in their own way, have Amazon.com, eBay, and Salesforce.com, to name a few.
But 10 years into Google's proof of concept, it's clear the browser needs to be faster, more stable, more secure, more capable of handling complex graphics, and more flexible in terms of its user interface. Were the browser's shortcomings not so apparent, rich Internet applications, powered by technologies like Flash, AIR, Silverlight, and QuickTime, would never have been necessary.
Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, called the release of Chrome an "extraordinary event." Others are more circumspect, even skeptical.
It would be easy to dismiss Chrome as hype, despite widespread expressions of approval. Chrome is, after all, beta software, with plenty of omissions, flaws, and vulnerabilities that Google will have to address. And Google's careless inclusion of overreaching terms of service, not to mention its lack of clarity about Chrome's privacy implications, haven't helped.
But if Chrome overpromises ... the desktop has underperformed. Microsoft's Windows Vista, by almost any measure, has been a disappointment. It's been more "ow" than "wow." And Apple's upcoming operating system update, Snow Leopard, will be bug fixes and performance improvements. It's "[t]aking a break from adding new features," as Apple describes it.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But the desktop, the operating system, shows no sign that it can keep up with the innovation happening around browsers. Google, with Chrome and Gears, and Mozilla, with projects like Prism, Ubiquity, and Weave, are leading the way to new possibilities and new Web applications.
If you haven't seen Chrome in action yet, InformationWeek has published a wide range of analyses of the browser that's being touted as a game-changer. Download the report here (registration required).