Friday, July 23, 2010

Google's Chrome Strategy: Browser + OS + HTML5 = Apps in the Cloud.

Recent market share gains for Android smartphones have been well publicized, as devices based on Google's mobile OS now challenge for 3rd place behind RIM's Blackberry and Apple's iPhones.  At the same time, less well known (outside the techie community) is that another operating system for mobile devices is about to emerge from Google's development Labs - the Chrome OS.

  • Like Android, Google is developing Chrome as an "open source" project.
  • Also, like Android, Google is promoting an app store model for Chrome.
  • Unlike Android, Chrome is targeted not at smartphones but at netbooks (and tablets?).
  • Also, unlike Android, Chrome's apps are hosted on the web, i.e. "in the cloud" through the Chrome browser.
  • Android apps = Java
  • Chrome apps = HTML5
Now the Chrome browser might be familiar to many of you, since it also has achieved a 3rd place position (passing Safari), but what is the purpose of another OS?

And, how will Chrome impact mobile computing?
Oh, and what's with another app store?

I had the opportunity to discuss some of these questions with two members of Google's Chrome development team at a Silicon Valley Meetup earlier this week.  It was clear, from the lively discussions at the meeting, that the developer community is also unclear on how the dual efforts on Android and Chrome fit together in the grand scheme of things. 

You can watch a video on the Chrome Web Store concept from Google I/O, but here are what I see as the key assumptions in Google's thinking:
  • Tabbed browsing has led to clutter, "why have multiple tabs for the same site"?
  • There is "no inherent discoverability on the web".
  • Too many sites ask for permission, and this will get worse with HTML5 features.
  • The taxonomy of the web will develop into two branches: rich media HTML5 "applications", and more standard web "pages".
  • It is hard for developers to monetize these applications on the web. 
Tab clutter is a subjective issue. I myself apparently abuse browsers well past their capacity, as evidenced by frequent crashes or freezing up of my PC. But I like having separate tabs.

On discoverability, I'm not sure that Technorati, digg, StumbleUpon, or a number of other social website sharing services would quite agree. Google is going up against Facebook on this issue.

Regarding monetization, Google's Chrome Web Apps do provide a benefit over the mobile app store model. Developers will get 100% of the revenue.
    Since the Chrome browser runs on multiple platforms, the Chrome Web Store will also facilitate access to web apps that can be run on PCs, Macs, etc. However, underlying Google's strategy are the advantages envisioned for cloud computing, especially for mobile devices.
    • Google Chrome OS will make your netbook more secure, even disposable. You don't have to worry about it being lost or stolen, since there won't be any data or applications stored on it.
    • Faster boot times, since Chrome OS requires a solid-state drive.
    • Cheaper computers, i.e. no OS "tax". Just like Android, the Chrome OS will be free.
    Developers in attendance had many questions, many no doubt influenced by the current Android fragmentation issues, that the Chrome strategy appears to repeat if not exacerbate.

    I was asked about Chrome versus Android during my presentation at the Netbook Summit back in May.  As you can see in that presentation, there are already Android netbooks on the market, though not so much in the U.S. as in other regions of the world. Many Android tablets are in development as well.  My answer then was that I could envision a convergence, offering a choice of browser-based vs. native apps. While the distinctions between Android and Chrome appear to be (excuse the pun) a bit cloudy, in my discussion this week with the Google representatives it was made clear that Google sees the two OS development efforts as "completely orthogonal".

    While a technically sound argument might be made for that, the issue I have is that success in the consumer market - which this effort targets - is very dependent on making the user's life simple. While Google's culture of experimentation is a great one for driving innovation, as we saw with the Nexus-1, "build it and they will come" is not a prescription for market success. As an engineer turned marketer myself, I have seen this many times.

    I wonder if Google has run any focus groups on prototype Chrome devices? Understanding the end-consumer is a key differentiating strength that Apple possesses.  It's all too common in engineering-driven organizations to take the approach of "who needs marketing"?

    Here are some issues that I see, and some thoughts on why a converged Android-Chrome strategy should be considered:
    • The Chrome Web App store is based on Google Checkout, which has been a limiting factor in deriving revenue from Android apps. Relatively few people have Google Checkout accounts, and many people don't want to register on another pay site. The Chrome App solution is to redirect to the application's host site for alternate payment mechanisms, such as PayPal. A user should be able to register their own preferred payment mechanism once on the market site.
    • As was announced at Google I/O, the Android Market is finally going to get desktop browsing capability. Why not make one unified Google Market? The Android Market already knows everything about my device when I login, and I fail to see the benefit of creating multiple shopping sites. Since web sites can be turned into a Chrome Web App, will we see Android Market apps in the Chrome Web App store? Confusing!
    • This will get worse with the introduction of Google-TV and a growing number of non-smartphone applications for Android.
    • Or maybe better yet, why not hand off the whole app store to a 3rd party that has more consumer-facing expertise and brand identity (e.g. Amazon)? 
    • While the Android browser is, currently at least, not Chrome - wouldn't it make sense to give Android devices the same access and user experience for Web apps? This is going to be critical to the success of Android tablets, especially with Google's emphasis on HTML5 rich media applications.

    Here is the planned rollout schedule for Chrome Web Apps:
    • mid-August: developer-facing launch.
    • October: consumer-facing launch. Sellers in U.S only at launch, in USD 
    • Other countries and currencies to be added later.
    Stay tuned. Innovation never sleeps!

    1 comment:

    Retta Matson said...

    The apps in the cloud, seems quite interesting. Lets see how it reacts in the near future.