Don’t Be Evil? Google Chrome’s Big Brother Potential

Creativity, Science & Technology — POSTED BY Joe Murray on December 3, 2009 at 2:53 pm

John Naughton‘s article (below) originally appeared in the Observer on Sunday 29th November 2009.

This is the first article in what I hope to be a long-running technology series on Brainwaving about the power struggle currently taking place between the two most important technology corporations in the world; Microsoft and Google. A new cold war is being waged, not over ideology or natural resources, but for the hearts and minds of users (for which read:”people”) everywhere… and we have front row seats.

A basic principle of warfare is never to fight on terrain chosen — or dominated — by your enemy. This principle seemed to explain why, as Google rose to challenge Microsoft as the world’s most powerful technology company, the one market it eschewed was that for operating systems. That territory was dominated by Bill Gates & Co and so Google concentrated on building dominance in areas where Microsoft was feeble or non-existent: search, cloud computing, web applications, advertising. It all seemed so sensible.Google-microsoft-buddies

But then last July, Google gave notice that it had changed tack by revealing it was working on a radical new operating system called Chrome OS. Just over a week ago, the product was officially launched at the company’s Californian HQ, which left the technology community intrigued and puzzled, and the mainstream media salivating over the prospect of a head-to-head battle between Google and Microsoft.

The first computers equipped to run Chrome won’t hit stores until late next year, but we now know what they will look like. Essentially they will be “netbooks”, but with a difference: all the software on them will come from Google, via the internet. And Google will make the key decisions about the hardware on which its new system will run.

As the Guardian’s Jack Schofield put it: “If Chrome OS takes off, it will give Google an unprecedented degree of power over PC vendors, who will only be able to use products that Google specifies and supports. Google will control and maintain the operating system remotely, so if it doesn’t want you to have something, you can’t have it.”

The degree of power Google seeks over hardware is akin to that demanded by Apple, hitherto the leading exponent of control freakery in the technology business. For example, Chrome netbooks won’t be allowed to use hard disks – because flash (ie solid-state) drives boot faster and Google is obsessed with reducing boot-up times. And if you want to install your own wi-fi card in your netbook, forget it: Google will specify which wi-fi cards its software will support.


Implicit in Google’s operating system strategy are two radical ideas. The first is that we have definitively moved into the era where the network – not the PC – is the computer. The idea is that most people can now get all the computing services they need – web browsing, email, instant messaging, word processing, spreadsheets, blogging, telephony, etc – via the net, so they no longer need to have a machine capable of running a bloated, clunky operating system. All they need instead is an internet-ready device that can get its operating system from the network “cloud” and then get on with the real work of the day.

The second radical idea embedded in the Google scheme is the notion that what people really need is an information appliance that “just works”. Sundar Pichai, the Google vice-president who launched the system, claimed that the aim was to make the Chrome OS work like a TV: you turn it on and in a few seconds you can get the programme you want. No more interminable delays while the computer boots up, checks its memory and loads the operating system before it deigns to give you so much as a log-on prompt.

The flip side of all this, of course, is that Chrome netbooks will be the ultimate in tethered devices. You may own the machine, just as you may think you own your Apple iPhone, but in fact Google controls it, just as Apple controls the phone. If, for example, you’ve tinkered with the device overnight, and the Google server detects the change as you hook up to the net, then the operating system may be remotely deleted and a fresh version installed without your knowledge or consent. Google will argue that this is for your own good – that it’s an effective defence against the viruses, trojans and malware that plague current users of Microsoft operating systems.

And so it is. But it’s also a limitation on your freedom. In his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet – and how to stop it, Harvard academic Jonathan Zittrain painted a vivid picture of the dangers of a world in which most people’s access to the internet is via tethered devices controlled by powerful companies. If Chrome OS takes off we will have taken a giant leap into that nightmare. For 1984 read 2010.

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