We’ll see in a year or so, but this could mark the start of the age where web2.0 applications finally see their untold prophecy fulfilled. In fact, I would go as far as saying that this represents a wakeup call for the business of OS Companies.
A very small team of Google fans have unleashed gOS – an actual OS you can install on your PC that has quick access to web 2.0 applications and services that serve as alternatives to current-age OSes. It looks very slick — it is based on Ubuntu but has taken its
design lessons from Apple and some of the web OSs in the market.
V.1.0.1 is out and available for download here.
Current applications offered standard include (among a lot more):
- Gmail for email
- Meebo for IM
- GCal for calendars
So what’s with all this talk of untold prophecies, why could this be a wakeup call for OS companies, and how on earth did such a small team manage to make an OS?
The untold prophecy
A lot of people still find it hard to see how Web 2.0 applications — such as office suites — could have any significance when compared desktop equivalents. It is reasonable to expect that – if you are already in your OS, and you already have an application sitting there, what would prompt you to go on your browser half-way across the world and use an application with limited value and experience?
This isnt a question of revenue-model or a value-proposition but rather a strategy question – would consumer web-based equivalents of existing desktop applications have enough influence in the dynamics of a market that will be able to (1) Give significant advantage to a firm in that business space to compete, (2) provide significant enhacement to a company’s brand, (3) become a strategic acquisition target for some other firm in order for that firm to reach (1) or (2).
This is often the question on which investment decisions are made — whether it is a VC partner investing in entrepreneurs or a bigger company deciding to build a new product area (such as Google with Google Apps).
The simpler answer to has been to identify areas of short-to-mid term economic value that these desktop-equivalent web apps can offer — value is created sometimes by offering something for free that would otherwise cost a user money to buy (e.g. web2.0 accounting software), sometimes by helping you reduce infrastructure and infrastructure management expense (e.g. Some web2.0 office equivalents) and sometimes by improving the experience differential costs of sharing and connecting applications within teams (e.g. Google Docs or other collaboration systems), which would otherwise be much more difficult to use (i.e. emailing documents back and forth).
The second major strategic relevance lies in the future of the interaction landscape as a whole – a general trend that people have been forecasting for a few years is that as mobile computers and device technology becomes cheaper and powerful, personal computers may phase out in favor of other smaller, embedded, and context-specific systems.
The idea has been that one-day, for all applications related to tourism, travel and directions you would ditch your PC in favor of (1) applications on your camera or phone that also know where you are when you’re taking pictures or taking tours and (2) GPS-enabled devices in your car that could then take those pictures and sync them with your friends and colleagues as you drove back home. This is what I mean by context-sensitive applications.
In other words, the idea was that one day web2.0 based web applications could be distributed to other platforms where those applications themselves where the “primary” applications people had as a choice. This thinking –among other reasons – has driven significant recent moves such as the declaration of Nokia that they are officially a mobile computing company, the creation of Andriod by Google and the development of the iPhone by Apple, or the decision by Mozilla to create a mobile-version of Firefox.
Although these examples are the mobile market, the point to note here is how the iPhone has demonstrated that concept of putting web applications front-and-center in the experience for consumers. The same idea is now being extended in other devices.
The gOS, however, presents now an opportunity to distribute web applications straight to the desktop in the same way — its a platform where those applications are the primary applications for the consumer, and infact installing the original “desktop equivalents” presents the experience cost to the user. (“Why would I go and get the app and install it when I already have this right here?”)
Building an OS with a small team
A third leg of the web-based application philosophy involved the growing use of open standards, something we’ve spoken about before. Here the hope was that because of all these apps would use the same open HTTP standards, one day it would also be easier to build the platforms that further the cause (and thus building a self-serving ecosystem).
This has also come to pass with gOS, whose team must have seen immense benefit to their development cycle from two places — on the one side, they are built on top of the shoulders of open communities and thus were able to leverage the collective development efforts of hundreds of contributing coders.
But in addition, they didn’t really have to invest in a massive application subsystem or filesystem — if you think about it all they had to do was create one application that could render those open standards (or use firefox or another opensource browser) to be able to immediately offer all of those applications from the get-go.
Their total development cost would thus be miniscule.
The wakeup call
This brings me to the third — even more subtle — value shown by gOS. Lets take a look at the basic application set they offer.
They can now quickly offer the exact applications people care about, and none that they dont. They’re offering Youtube and Facebook and Skype and Blogger — representing three of the biggest consumer tech trends in recent years — available right into the desktop environment.
I think if I had to point to one reason why OS companies — Apple, Microsoft and others — have demonstrated very poor product design recently, it would be this: these companies have consistency failed to recognize and reward consumer behavior on the web.
The day of the single-user, single-desktop experience may be dying, but that still means that the desktop can play a major role in the cloud-connected, friend-connected, syndicated-value-consumption-and-production experience which people want to experience.
Both of the two major OS releases this year have demonstrated a “This is what we think you should want” philosophy instead of “This is what you wanted and we’re bringing it to you” approach (reminds me of Kathy Sierra’s insight.. she should return to writing online).
The gOs guys seem like they actually get it — that they’re giving people a one-click access to the things they need, and then getting out of the way, and I think this has value.
Product design is a blend of a large number of different principles but generally it works on the art of understanding and finding your place in the global trends to come, building a value-centric approach to finding how you are building that place in the marketplace (the product) and identifying the lowest-cost way of developing that product.
Lets see how this space evolves over the months or years to come – whether big companies will rally behind gOS just like they are behind ODF, and whether web applications will finally find a place in the market where they are the core technology set that is creating the value people need.