Is the “PC as the Platform” Age About to End?

Had a thought while reading the various opinions from those people who have been given an opportunity to use Google’s ChromeOS product (and the hardware that it was delivered with), for an extended period. While the opinions vary, and there are more questions about it in respect to “whom is the ChromeOS for” vein – I think what we are seeing is something a touch more disruptive, and the incumbents are having a hard time agreeing with their behaviors.

Let’s start with one of the more common phrases said in these reviews of ChromeOS:

…My more portable 2.13 GHz MacBook Air is the machine I like and even as I spend a lot of time inside the browser, I prefer a desktop with the Chrome browser and raw power…

via GigaOm

So, let me get this right. You can spend most of your time within a browser for work and play. Even to the point of using applications in both a stationary and mobile context which take browser-oriented content and reflow it around a more user-friendly shell. But, then come out of this saying that the paradigm shift of doing everything in a browser is too difficult. Something isn’t adding up, and there’s still a pointing to an obvious reality…

…do users need to care about the plumbing if it just works?

It has been said many times that the majority of people online aren’t content creators, they are consumers. Sometimes that number is quoted to be 90/10 (90% are consumers, and a precious few of the 10% actually create original material). If that is the case, what then is so hard then in seeing the effect of a network terminal (browser and hardware) playing the role of “PC platform?” Could it be that ChromeOS actually shows how little control users have over the system and the pipes?

Here are some conventional tasks that many modern PC and mobile platforms have embedded in us that we now think of as normal:

  • Setting aside time per week/month/quarter/year for system maintenance, optimization, software updates, and backup
  • Utilizing multiple applications and/or services to manage communication tasks (one for voice, another for IM service #1, yet another for email, and one more that does the other IM services that #1 can’t do)
  • Calling friend/relative to your home who is a techie to diagnose why that “blinky” thing is happening in the corner of your screen (that system needs to update/virus is found bubble)
  • Installing drivers for printers, cameras, or other accessories, and being comfortable enough with things not working that you know where to go on a manufacturer website to download the latest update of ‘X’ driver
  • Needing an IT department to train you on using a word processor, spreadsheet, browser, or other generalized application

If computing just works, what then happens to the energy wasted on these and other manual/administrative tasks? I’d argue that not only would they go away, but IT – that is, information technology as an industry – would need to transform from being a support industry to an enabling one. And I’m not sure that folks are ready for that change – at least not those who have been given ChromeOS laptops to look at.

Yes, it is quite uncomfortable to not be in a familiar environment and then be asked to perform similar – if not better – than you had previously. I know this very well living quite against the grain by using only and iPad and Nokia N97 for my primary computing devices. There’s a lot of trying to figure out work-arounds for things like collaborative documents that people send me as Word (.docx) attachments or even browser testing new code on my personal projects. But, its nothing that keeps me head-down. Getting away from crashing hard drives, daily virus threats, and the “look at me nature” of platform hardware allows me to better focus computing energies on things that would better enable others to do similar.

At least, that’s what I tell myself while working on in Evernote workbook detailing a class on what’s new in Windows 7.

ChromeOS is one of many signs that IT and the media around it needs to adapt to a different paradigm of living, working, and mediating what values computing brings to life around us. What we are seeing with the iOS/iTunes ecosystem, Mozilla, Nokia/Ovi, and Microsoft approaches are all saying the same thing – the age of the PC being the center of the computing platform is over. There are more screens, different behaviors, and different implications that need to be talked about.

Image via GigaOm.

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