“What we are trying to do is make an operating system and a computer more like a web service.” That’s the vision Caesar Sengupta, product strategy lead for Google Chrome OS, laid out for me last year, as the company was gearing up to launch its own cloud-based operating system to compete with Microsoft and Apple. It was a big bet at the time, and one the search giant is still banking on: that consumers want the desktop to feel more like the web.
But lacklustre sales signal that perhaps Google is taking the wrong approach, or at least that it’s too soon for such a radical change. Chrome OS is in the process of a major redesign — with a new interface called Aura. So perhaps it’s high time Google takes a few notes from Microsoft, maker of the world’s most widely used operating system, which is taking a decidedly different bet on its latest entry, Windows 8: that consumers actually want the web to feel more like a desktop.
That might sound like a subtle distinction, but the user experience is night and day. If you’ve had the chance to play around with a Windows 8 laptop and Chrome OS netbook like we have, though, here’s the difference. Google’s mantra is “the web is what you make it”. It’s based on a philosophy that says that anything you need to do — read the news, watch a movie, check your email, open a file — can be done, and done better, in the cloud by using Google News, YouTube, Gmail or Google Drive. Most Chrome OS apps aren’t so much “apps” as they are web bookmarks: for example, Google’s own YouTube “app” is just a link to YouTube.com.
Microsoft, on the other hand, aims to press the power of the web into its desktop experience. Things we’d traditionally always pull up a browser to do — follow social feeds, check stocks or the weather, look up directions — have now been upgraded to lightweight desktop apps: more efficient than widgets, more practical than traditionally installed programs. Sure, they arguably perform the same functions, but the desktop experience is superior to the web: it’s integrated with the interface, it runs smoother, it’s easily accessible with other apps, it’s more beautiful in full screen, it’s refined. Rather than click an “app” on Chrome OS to go to Weather.com, the Weather app on Windows 8 tells me everything I need to do — more quickly and cleanly. The same is true for the Finance and Maps tile, as well as the People app, which integrates many social networks — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — into one experience.
Or, to crystallise the two company approaches in a different way, just look at Google Docs and Microsoft Office. Google believes it can take what have traditionally been desktop applications — office productivity programs — and convert them into web apps, so you’d write a text document online just as you would an email. Microsoft, inversely, envisions building the advantages of the web right into Office, so, for example, you can store all your documents in the cloud and still edit them offline. At present, if you had to write an important document for school, or fill out a complex spreadsheet for work, would you choose Google Docs or Microsoft Word and Excel? Your answer to that question should indicate how comfortable you feel not only about each product’s user experience, design and stability, but about each company’s long-term goals.
To be fair, Chrome OS does offer some decent and real web apps. NPR and the New York Times have created interesting experiences, and there are a few tolerable examples from independent developers such as Weather Underground. But all in all, the web-based apps are simply too slow and too clunky to compete with apps we’ve seen already on smartphones, tablets and now on desktops. No theme unites them. That might change over time, but right now, they just don’t play well together.
Essentially, it’s the difference between running Twitter’s app on your iPhone, or pulling up Twitter.com in your mobile Safari browser: you’d prefer the former to the latter. And while Twitter and DropBox look and feel and run dramatically different on the web, when ported to the iPhone in app form, they appear to be born of the same experience, with the same design language, principles and DNA — thanks to Apple’s high standards.
Microsoft has clearly learnt this lesson from Apple and is now approaching the design for Windows 8 in the same way Apple did for iOS. Interestingly enough, Microsoft almost once went down the same road as Google in seeking to make the desktop feel more like the web. Back in 2010, when the company was showing off Internet Explorer 9, it imagined a world where you’d simply pin a web app to your taskbar. The problem was, like on Chrome OS, these “apps” for eBay and Facebook were just links to their respective homepages.
Thankfully, Microsoft pursued a different approach. Now, when a third-party developer like Box.net wants on Windows 8, it builds a Metro-style app that is well integrated with the platform’s user experience. Compare that to Box’s Chrome OS “app”, which, as you might guess, is just a link to Box.net.
This speaks to the larger issue of how Google thinks about product and design. Products from Google always feel as if they’re built in silos. No one is doubting that Google is capable of great or popular products: Search, Gmail, Chrome (the browser), YouTube, Android, Maps. But they feel disparate. So while Microsoft and Apple have long worked to provide a common thread across their product lines, it feels like an afterthought for Google to decide, only recently, that Google+ should be the “social spine” that unites all its products; that Google Play should be its sole media centre; and that Android and Chrome OS should be the software it all runs on.
It seems complicated, slipshod even. How will its desktop experience, Chrome OS, merge with its foreign mobile software, Android? What happens to the company’s “social spine” if Google+ fails? Where does the Chrome Web Store fit into Google Play, already a messy experience that Google sloppily jammed together with the Android Marketplace, Google Music and Google Play Books?
Apple has long tied its products together well into straight-forward families of software and hardware: iPhones and iPads and iMacs; iOS and Mac OS X; the app store and iTunes. Microsoft, of course, has had trouble with this process before, but it’s certainly worked hard to make Windows, especially now with its fresh Metro design, the unifying force across products like Bing, Office, Xbox and Windows Phone.
Google ought to take cues from both companies on this front. And judging from the initial designs of Chrome OS’ latest build, Google does seem to be doing so. Its new Aura interface looks remarkably like Windows 7 taskbar or the Mac OS docking bay.