With Google Chrome OS and remoted Windows apps, who needs Windows on the desktop?

Most everyone knows that Google hosted an event in San Francisco yesterday where they officially unveiled their own operating system known as "Google Chrome OS." In their own words, this OS is "essentially the Google Chrome browser running on bare metal.

Most everyone knows that Google hosted an event in San Francisco yesterday where they officially unveiled their own operating system known as "Google Chrome OS." In their own words, this OS is "essentially the Google Chrome browser running on bare metal." Their reason for creating the Chrome OS is that (paraphrasing) "most of the code, complexity, maintenance, and security problems of a computer are related to the OS, not the browser, and most (all?) of today's OSes were designed before the web! Contrast that to the Chrome OS which was designed for the web -- in fact it's nothing but web!"

A standalone browser running on bare metal is one thing, but to really make this practical, you need apps. (Like, real apps!) Of course the web apps of today are really starting to approach the "real apps" stage. Long gone are the days of web apps just being simple forms-based things like online travel planners, expense reports, and email. Today's web apps (and those around the corner) can leverage a client's GPU & local storage and have the look, feel, interactivity, and richness of platform-native apps. (Google has a great demo site which shows web apps that leverage emerging technologies like HTML5 and WebGL.)

Just having a world of web apps is one thing, but users like to put shortcuts to apps on their desktop and to keep track of which apps are "theirs." To that end, Google also launched the Google Chrome web store, an app store where users can download free and paid-for apps which then appear on their "desktop." (The "desktop," in this case, being just another web page which is viewed in a browser.) The look and feel of the Google Chrome web store is almost identical to the iTunes App Store for iOS devices and the upcoming Mac App Store. (And presumably the Windows or Zune or Live or whatever-Microsoft-is-doing-now store.)

What's interesting about the Chrome web store is that developers don't have to write or compile an app specifically for Chrome. Instead any website can become an installable web app just by creating a text-based manifest file that bundles together the URL, an icon, and a few other basic parameters. (So in fact the Chrome web store doesn't inherently provide offline capabilities or awesome GPU-leveraged graphics or anything -- that too is all based on standard web app technologies.)

For example, the NY Times web app can be "installed" from the Chrome Web Store, but all that really does is pop an icon into your app list. Clicking on that icon launches a browser tab to http://www.nytimes.com/chrome/. Alternately you can just click that link and view the "app" in any browser. (Well, any browser that supports whatever web standards that site was written for.)

The Google Chrome web store will ultimate have all of the "expected" apps: NY Times, Amazon Kindle, photo editors, etc. which at first glance seem startlingly similar to their iOS (iPad, etc.) variants. (Actually I wonder if standards-based web apps with rich interfaces are enough to worry Apple? Like why would developers write native iOS apps when web apps might have the same features but run on all platforms? And teasing that out a bit further, does this officially mean the iPad is just a bitchin tablet PC with a ten-hour battery?)

What about Windows?

The Google Chrome OS (and the Chrome web store) are intrinsically not about Microsoft Windows apps. And it looks like we're not too far away from the point where any new business app can be written in these web technologies instead of as native Windows apps. So this begs the question: Why would a developer write a new app that runs on just a single platform that users have to pay for (i.e. Windows) when they could write an app that will run on any platform (including free ones)? And of course any web app will run on Windows via a standards-compliant browser anyway, so why not? (Ok, so it's not quite so simple, and Microsoft will fight the religious battle against Google/Oracle/VMware(Spring)/everyone, but that's an argument best left to real developers.)

More importantly is that fact that even if we hit the tipping point of new apps in the next few years (the "tipping point" where more new apps are developed as these cool web apps instead of old Windows apps), in the corporate world it's not like all of our old Windows apps will disappear overnight. So we corporate IT folks will have to support dual web/Windows environments (much like we're starting to see now) for years (if not decades) to come. Where's that leave us?

Well we could continue to do what we do now, namely, deliver a Microsoft Windows-based desktop (native, VDI, TS, OS streaming, client VM, whatever) which runs all the user's traditional Windows apps (native, streamed, isolated, virtualized, layered, whatever). Then on top of support the native Windows OS, we can also support a standards-compliant browser which will access all the new web apps. That's basically what we do today.

OR we could flip that model, instead moving to a Chrome OS-like environment where the browser is the native element running on the client device and we access the old school Windows apps as our "afterthought."

To this end, some Citrix execs actually got on stage with Google yesterday and announced that in 2011 they'll release a Citrix Receiver (their ICA/HDX client) for Chrome, allowing Chrome browser and Chrome OS users to access native Microsoft Windows apps (and desktops) running on XenApp or XenDesktop. From a technical standpoint, since Chrome apps are just web apps, the Citrix Receiver for Chrome is just an HTML5-based web app version of their Receiver (and probably loosely based on their existing Java client).

citrix receiver for chrome.jpg

Is the Chrome OS device the ultimate thin client?

If you're HP or Wyse, do you continue to develop your own thin client OS now that Chrome OS is out? I mean fundamentally Chrome OS is a stateless thin client OS. And I'm sure Chrome OS will have the most advanced capabilities built-in to it for running web apps locally, which sure beats running web apps in a crippled local browser or wasting precious datacenter resources to run a "real" browser in a Windows instance remotely. I wonder if the thin client vendors can wrap their own management stacks around it. Or whether they even need to?

There's also an opportunity for Chrome OS to hook into corporate environments. In the demo Google showed today, one of the first steps to using Chrome OS was to login with your Google account (which contained all the settings and links to your web store apps). But I imagine it would be easy enough to make that primary login hook into a corporate directory? Imagine a Citrix OpenCloud Access or VMware Horizon login?

Bottom line: I'm super excited about the Chrome OS, mainly because I like the concept of breaking Microsoft's monopoly on corporate apps and their "F You" attitude towards desktop virtualization. Chrome and web apps are going to be huge for us, and I can't wait for the day that Windows is forced to the back burner. What do you think? Is this the future?

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When something is successful, duplicate.  That is what Google is doing.  Think about it. Apple is making impressive inroads into enterprises. Not because IT is moving that direction, but because consumers love Apple products and bring them into the enterprise.  This isn't anything new.  People have been talking about consumerization for a long time.


The last time I was in the office (remote employee), I was in a meeting with about 20 people and about 1/2 of those were using Apple as their desktop while in the meeting (Mac or iPad, no Newtons).  


Google is trying the same thing. If you can make cool products, then consumers will buy into it.  If consumers do, then IT will have to deal with it. Most home users do not need all of the bells and whistles of a full blown OS like Windows 7. Look at what home users are doing. Facebook. Money management. Photo editing.  Online banking.  Travel planning.  Most of these can be done online.  And if you need to create docs, there are free online tools for that. Plus tons of free online storage.  Once you understand the user requirements, you can build some awesome solutions.


If the Chome OS works, users will buy into it. But will it be enough to pass Apple? no idea.  Will Microsoft try something new or just simply put Windows 7 on a tablet?  Competition brings innovation and I, for one, am pretty excited to see more options.


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I'm actually surprised not to see more comments here. I think it's pretty clear that the future represents heterogeneity. Heterogeneity of devices and apps. If I was still in IT, there would be no doubt in my mind that new strategies and technologies will be needed to cope. The desktop IMHO therefore will continue to evolve but as pointed out above, the traditional is here to stay for a long long time. It's a great time for the desktop evolution.


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This is definitely reflective of real and welcome change to the desktop landscape, along with what is already happening with the iPad. That said, I can't see a near-term scenario where the business computing stack shifts with any degree of speed away from local Windows. Long-term, the potential is definitely there though.


Where I think this could have some real short-term benefits for enterprise IT is that perhaps the emergence of Chrome OS netbooks as HTML5-powered devices for personal computing activities will provide IT greater ability to lockdown Windows from user-installed apps, reducing management complexity.


Think about a user with their personal world (docs, e-mail, banking, books, music, etc.) in a Chrome cloud world. At that point, I would be willing to trade the ability to install apps for an SLA from IT on my Windows desktop. And if I am IT, I may be willing to extend such an SLA for the first time if I can lock down the desktop.


In terms of a more significant shift of business computing from Windows to something new, I actually see client hypervisors like NxTop and XenClient playing a central role in this. Run Windows and a browser-centric OS side-by-side, remove Windows if it makes sense, but always have the flexibility to put it back if you need it.


Doug Lane


Virtual Computer, Inc.


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@Doug


You bring up an interesting point at the end. Not too long ago I was reading a blog entry from OK Labs comparing the multi-purpose microkernal vs. the single purpose hypervisor meaning the only purpose of running VMs.


This comparision is analogous to Chrome OS and client side hypervisors. Now, in the context of Chrome OS vs a hypervisor, the hypervisor is now considered multi-purpose while the Chrome OS is the single purpose.


Regardless, they all serve their purposes and I am eager to check out the Chrome OS when it becomes available.


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I think greater choice is a good thing that should be embraced everywhere. It's good for innovation. That said the big trump card here is still legacy and the pace at which MS will also evolve. They are certainly talking all cloud right now, but they have little so far. Given the massive legacy base, and things like Office 365 emerging they have the ability to make it easy to move to the new style of Windows apps. Heterogeneity is most likely against the MS religion so a new style of Windows apps and migrating the legacy base is what I think is what they will do. That of course in turn will allow others who will embrace heterogeneity to remain relevant. Another way to think about it is the vertical stack vendors and horizontal choice based vendors. Schools of thought certainly there on vertical stack lock in vs. horizontal choice and partial lock-in. Great article Brian, and I agree with the sentiment that legacy will remain with us during our live times but we must evolve to embrace a broader eco system.


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I firmly believe that this Web ecosystem has evolved as a result of Google and Apple deciding that they have to teach Microsoft a lesson. {wink}.


Heterogeneity has been prevelent in business for almost 10 years and the momentum continues. Organizations have tried to centrally manage disparate devices and applications at alarmingly high costs. Add remote workers into the mix and you get infrastructure buildout (datacenters, hardware, employess) expenses that are enormous.


The Cloud (whether internal or external) simply reduces the cost and potential complexity in supporting large mixed environments.


Choice is great but here's the flip side that i run into all the time; Analysis by paralysis. "What are we going to do to simplify next year?"


Where is the long term thinking aligned with the business?


I am beginning to believe that IT in large organizations (Wall Street, Healthcare, etc.) really does not want these changes since it is disruptive to the existing way.


Isn't that Silly!


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There's been no shortage of doom merchants predicting the death of the Windows application since the first CGI web apps in the mid 90s on into the Java wave, and now a whole diversity of alternative app environments - see this week's announcements by salesforce.com as just one example.


Yet the reality is, there are as many "traditional" Windows apps as ever, blended with a mix of web apps and a smattering of other environments (AIR, Java). The trick is that Microsoft has continually evolved and expanded the definition of a Windows application through the underlying technologies, .NET and the various Windows "Foundations" in particular, so that Windows apps continue to be a rapid, reliable way to solve business problems on a physical or virtual PC.


The other major factor driving the traditional "local" application (both Windows and Mac) is that web technologies just don't lend themselves to highly interactive application types - CAD/CAM, 3D design, animation, modelling, simulation, 3D gaming and even the more advanced operations in business productivity apps. I've known many non-power users that find online office apps unusably basic in their current form. Sure, they will improve and might one day become a serious alternative, but for now OWA is no replacement for Outlook except in emergencies.


In other words, I agree that diversity is going to be with us for a long time, and Windows on the desktop is going to be as important next year as it is today.


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Nothing new in this Mr Madden post.


A device without Windows on desk (cool – that’s what many of us propose to clients with Wyse devices today). Low cost, low maintenance, long life. Portable options available too. End user experience constraints compared to PC. Chrome is just another variant with slightly different function as browser based.


Where do my hundreds of current business apps go? Onto a big old farm of VDI / TS / RDS / XenApp / XenDesktop (select your own business case poison from this list). Albeit most are now cost equivalent or cheaper than running a traditional PC estate, when considered on their own. But you never deploy them on their own – always other items in the business case. Don’t forget to upgrade your network $£€. Don’t forget to QoS your network $£€. Don’t forget to talk to mobile users about experience when trying to use 3G connectivity to work on full screen, real business apps. And let’s not forget the reality mantra – one size does not fit all – so I will still have part of the organisation using PCs... will I or not?


How will browser apps running via Chrome and your ‘80% legacy business apps’ running in your centralised desktop environment interoperate, communicate and generally work like they do when installed side by side on a PC today. $£€ better fund lots of rewrites to use different interfaces, workarounds etc? Damn can’t rewrite ISV packaged apps.


MS Office and all my packaged and custom add-ons. $£€ will need the vendors and my own staff to re-write them if I want to walk away from MS Office. If I don’t walk away from MS Office then my licence costs went up as a result MS attitude to desktop licensing and my decision above. What are the implications for working with other organisations. What is my technology roadmap and budget profile from next 10 years? Hmm – suddenly Microsoft is expensive but corporate finance like the predictability and stability.


Internet Explorer – I want to move away. $£€ need to fund upgrading / changing business apps that use ActiveX controls, Silverlight or any other MS-only technologies. Hope the vendors and my developers are all up for that too. Lots of licenses, infra, sunk investment, project work to overcome in business case there.


All other Win32 API apps – as Mr Madden correctly points out...


"More importantly is that fact that even if we hit the tipping point of new apps in the next few years (the "tipping point" where more new apps are developed as these cool web apps instead of old Windows apps), in the corporate world it's not like all of our old Windows apps will up and disappear overnight. So we corporate IT folks will have to support dual web/Windows environments (much like we're starting to see now) for years (if not decades) to come. So where's that leave us?"


Change interia = huge. Change costs = challenging.


I was preparing to be excited when desktop Linux was going to change desktop computing, I was prepared to be excited when OpenOffice started supporting MS doc standards enabling migration and interop with those who stuck with MS, I was prepared to be excited when Web 2.0 was going to be the new GUI for all client apps. What happened to these and other brave new worlds? Should I now be preparing to be excited because every vendor is going to change their mindset, roadmap and stable revenue stream by re-writing existing corporate-type apps for a Chrome-compatible browser? None of these propositions has overcome the inertial of the status quo to date and until, let’s say, >70% of real, existing business client apps (of which there are hundreds of thousands out there), not newly written apps, do not require Windows to run then this is still just markitecture.


If only it was so easy to unseat a monopoly.


Are these ravings, or can we forget the past and move straight to the sunny uplands discarding our cloak of legacy IT and accountants?


Your thoughts invited.


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Brian, there is no such thing as a "standards-compliant browser ".


Anybody who has been an admin of a TS farm the last couple of years knows this.


please read www.brianmadden.com/.../application-virtualization-smackdown-head-to-head-analysis-of-endeavors-citrix-installfree-microsoft-spoon-symantec-and-vmware.aspx again.


I can mention a dozen other examples than just dependency on IE6,


Face it: the browser is the new DLL hell, Application.Virtualization or not!


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My initial take is that this isn't a Windows-killer. Sure, there's going to be the addition of ChromeOS-based devices, but that doesn't mean Windows is going away. Nobody bought and iPad and went home to throw away their Windows 7 box.


Vista, maybe, but not 7 :)


If we're talking about the applications, it's not like Windows won't support HTML5 when they deem the time to be right (IE 9 has some support). What that means for the end users is that they don't have to choose between platforms to support the applications, and that means that the OS will end up where it fits best. ChromeOS on mobile devices, netbooks, tablets, etc..., and Windows on desktops (virtual or otherwise) because it supports everything.


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@Gabe,


Actually you can already access the Chrome OS HTML5 applications - all you need is the Chrome browser (I've already installed a couple in Chrome on Windows 7). Also, as I understand it, ChromeOS is intended for devices with keyboards. AFAIK Google is targeting tablets with a special version of Android.


This is actually a very significant distinction: as you wrote - nobody bought and iPad and went home to throw away their Windows 7 box. But ChromeOS is designed for devices that have the same form factor as laptops and netbooks that currently do run Windows 7. So Google does hope that people will replace Windows 7 with ChromeOS. Will it happen? Good question ...


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@Gabe -


'Nobody bought and iPad and went home to throw away their Windows 7 box'


Actually, I'm seeing the converse in a number of situations, people may not have the 'intention' of throwing Windows away, but it is happening.  Both my inlaws and several friends now have iPad's and in recent conversations have admitted that they hardly ever use their PC's, as the mail and browsing experience on the iPad (which makes up 95% of their requirements) is more than sufficient.  In all of these discussions it was agreed that once printing and file sharing support was enhanced, the PC would be a welcome addition to the 'home museum' in the loft space.


Personally, since buying an iPad, I also use it for 80% of my day to day online needs and only need the PC for writing complex dcumentation or editing home video.


I'm sure Windows based tablet devices will catch on based upon the success of the iPad, but ultimately, the beast that is Windows is total overkill for this form factor.


The technology used in business these days, certainly on the desktop, is being gradually being moulded and directed by the devices and software used personnaly and in the home.  Taking this an example, throwing BYOC into the mix and based upon my previous observation, it seems to make sense that Windows will be history sooner than we might think.


Now, Microsoft isn't gonna take this lying down and will manipulate the market to keep their cash cow alive in more inventive and underhand ways than we can possibly imagine, but who cares....ultimately the end user will dictate the devices and software which will make the cut over the next 5 years, not the corporate IT machine.


Inside of 5 years we will all be walking around with a pocket 'thin client' device which delivers access to both personal and business desktops and applications, all the IT guys will have to deliver is some kind of display and input device,  The apps/desktops will be for the most part in the Cloud, and therefore the OS used to deliver the apps/desktops and the thin 'pocket device' will need to be 'thin'.....and that for sure aint Windows, in it's current form.


With Google and Apple making such great inroads into providing a really scalable underlying architecture for supporting remote applications and desktops, Microsoft have got some catching up to do.  Citrix are in a great position, whoever ends up providing the underlying delivery platform.


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Just a little technical aside - I cannot believe the Citrix receiver is a HTML5 web app; more likely it will use Chrome's NaCL.


I would find it *hard* to believe that a company which takes 5 years to unify two management consoles into one, can make code that can


.) receive complex multi-channel data streams via HTML5's brand new websockets feature


.) somehow composite the graphical data into HTML Canvas elements


.) build a responder interaction engine in javascript to manipulate the client


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People who want to play games still need windows.  So since pretty much all of Korea needs their starcraft ii fix, they still need Windows.


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@Viking


The management console problem is a perennial one which haunts many companies, not just Citrix.


Anyway, the knuckle dragging coders responsible for the management console debacle are no match for some of the 'bright young things' who now strut the Citrix hallways in places like Silicon Valley, Cambourne, Sydney and Cambridge, Citrix is capable of pretty much anything in no time flat these days.


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