Wishful thinking? Yes, but let’s consider the possibilities. The last couple years have seen significant advances in hardware production and design. One of the more interesting (and potentially revolutionary) developments to take place this past year is the announcement of a new CPU, the STI (Sony, Toshiba, IBM) Cell processor.
Acting like several CPUs in one, the Cell will be able to
power multiple operating systems at once, as well as bear the heavy
computing load that a single system can place on the CPU.
These past couple years have also seen significant shifts in the
direction that computers and their operating systems are to take.
Phones, computers, gaming systems, and entertainment centers are
becoming more complex, more integrated with each other, and the
distinction between these devices are becoming more and more blurred.
Modern operating systems are reflecting this shift as well, supporting
VoiP, integrating audio and video with IM and email, etc.
With the maturity of the cell processor, tech manufacturers have the
opportunity to combine these functions completely on a single home
machine, with dedicated processors or cores for each task, and perhaps
dedicated operating systems–or environments–to enhance task
performance and simplify the interface.
As hardware complexity
increases, a simpler, more elegant and straightforward computing
interface will likely emerge, separating media from computing, design
and multimedia work from office work, with all tied to the Web. With
multimedia and gaming relegated to their own places–all of which can
operate simultaneously without interfering with one another (thanks to
Cell)–there is no need for one beastly, complicated interface to
control them all. Each environment can have its own simple,
straightforward interface, and the Cell will ensure ease of mobility
between environments without disturbing the workflow of any particular
This is Google’s specialty: a simple, easy to use interface,
accessible to all levels of users. Though there is no indication that
anything like this is in the works, one can easily imagine a
streamlined Google OS on its own hard disk partition, separated from
the entertainment, gaming, and media production environments. In
addition to Google’s signature services—a high-powered internet,
media, and local disk search engine—it would likely consist of an
office suite, a lean web browser, and various other applications and
utilities. Consider the technology already at Google’s disposal.
Start with the world’s best search engine with access to the largest
body of searchable information and media. Add Gmail: a clean,
internet, from which a user can not only compose, read, organize, and
search their email, but also quickly access Google’s search and other
services. Now, look at Google News: a world of online news sources,
which can be customized to an individual users preferences. Throw in
Google’s desktop search, the Picasa photo software, and Firefox
(Mozilla and Google have significant overlap in their employed
workforces) with live bookmarks, and cool research extensions such as
dictionary and thesaurus lookup, linky, launchy, and the like. Extend
all of this technology to typical desktop applications like office
software, then combine them all into one interface and bundle the OS.
Simple, powerful, and totally Google.
Let’s take it one step further. Imagine that all of this
software—like the Google search engine, Gmail, etc.—is stored on
Google’s notoriously well-backed-up servers and operates at relatively
high speed with any internet connection, thanks to its simplicity and
helpful) ads, and hosted on a distant server, this is free,
convenient, and accessible from ANY computer, anywhere, anytime.
Additionally, you have the world’s best IT department working on your
behalf to protect your software, its accessibility, and its security.
No viruses, no worms, no corrupted disks.
Let’s say they go even further: Google gives you, say, 1000GB on
their servers, hosts all your data (with multiple levels of
permissions), and provides everything mentioned above, and extends
their video search (currently in beta) to provide access to a wealth
of streaming audio (like iTunes radio) and video. All of it is free,
all of it is easily accessible through a powerful, extensible web
browser, and all of it simple and easy to use (it’s still Google,
What are the implications of such a system? First, no more purchasing
software (at least not the consumer grade applications hosted on the
server); second, companies actually competing for your business
(Google would surely be followed by the other major players); third,
your work is finally mobile.
Students can more comfortably use
computer labs, knowing that everything will be right where they left
it, no matter what machine they use. You can replace a machine
without copying and reconfiguring everything. Any web-enabled
computer can handle most home users’ desktop computing needs with
relative consistency. You can experiment with or switch to a new
operating system (Yahoo, MSN, .Mac) without buying a new machine or
partitioning your hard drive. Ads–not consumers–pay for
consumer-grade software, and since more apps will be web-based, you
can try out these proprietary programs on any machine at no cost, and
without the process of downloading and installing. And, as creepy as
it may sound to leave your data permanently on a server, this would
actually be more secure than the data on many computers out there
Now for the fun. Right now, open source programs like Firefox boast
some killer extensions that make browsing a lot more fun and a lot
more productive. Imagine the kinds of plug-ins and extensions one
could write for this Google OS, were it based on open standards (this
past week, Google released much of its code as open source, and posted
some key APIs at code.google.com). Perhaps you mouse over a URL, and
a preview of the page pops up in the corner. A couple mouse clicks or
a keyboard shortcut puts a graphic or media clip from the web right
into your slide presentation. When working on a research project, you
can bookmark sites of interest right into the outline of your paper.
Or imagine a database of freely-downloadable music, from top artists,
television shows, news videos, etc., paid for by inconspicuous Google
Every user could have a personal database where you can put
information about yourself, with varying permission levels. Anytime
your screen name shows up in an email, a letter, a website, mousing
over it will preview your data. If someone not in your access list
does this, it merely shows a link to your home page. For those in
your address book, it shows your full name, location, a flattering
picture (maybe it’s even one of you!), and links to your blog and your
favorite websites and activities. For certain close friends and
family members, your phone number, IM account, and email address
popup, so they can communicate with you instantly with one click.
Any document you create can be instantly uploaded to a community
database, indexed by Google, and accessed by anyone, or only those of
your choosing. And not just text documents and spreadsheets. Oh, no.
Posters, magazines, songs, animated shorts, even feature-length
movies! All powered by software hosted on the servers, paid for by
ads just like the ones you already have in your Gmail account and your
Google searches. And for projects requiring professional software
running on a studio machine, the server can still act as a central
storage area—tied to a webpage outlining the project details and
timeline—where files can be checked in and out as various project
members work on them.
When taking a step back and soaking in all that has developed in the
last couple years, it is not at all far fetched to hypothesize the
kind of innovation and integration I have suggested, especially for a
company like Google. Nor is it far fetched to imagine Google, Yahoo,
Apple, Microsoft, and others pushing each other towards and beyond
such a goal. Personally, I am excited to see what will happen in the
next few years. I am taken aback to remember when a word processor
was its own machine, when software—and even the OS—ran off of floppy
disks, when a computer didn’t boot—it turned on, and when a monitor
that looked as good as a TV was a big deal. But I’m truly looking
forward to the time when I will be surprised to remember when a
computer was its own machine, when software—and even the OS—was run
off of a hard drive, when a computer didn’t turn on—it booted, and
when a TV and a monitor were two different things!
All the indications are saying the same thing: the next few years in
computing technology will not be merely a faster version of what we’re
already doing. It’s time for a revolution. Simplicity, elegance,
functionality. It works for Google; will it work for you?
About the Author:
Kris Shaffer is a musician from Chicago, IL, who likes to tinker with Linux, Mac OS X, and web design in his spare time. He has a Master of Music degree from the Chicago College of Performing Arts and will soon begin doctoral study at Yale University. His home on the web (including papers and recordings) is www.shaffermusic.com.
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