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I find it fascinating that Google and Firefox are both beginning to compete in this new space of making hardware focused solely around the their browsers and internet-only devices. At first the idea felt limiting but the more I begin to research, I think Google and Firefox may be on to something. There is a transition happening. Google, Apple, and Microsoft are slowly easing people into being comfortable with third-party companies providing storage of their personal data. As internet connections get faster and bandwidth becomes more affordable, it almost doesn’t make sense to use a computer that is not connected to the internet. Let us imagine for a moment that Google and Mozilla are on to something that we have yet to understand.

Chrome OS + Chromebook Pixel

Google recently announced their Chromebook Pixel, running the chrome OS with a retina display, touch screen, and built in LTE connectivity, touting the statement “for what’s next”. This operating system is built with the assumption that the HTML5 Standard is the only way to develop software that will work on this device.

Mozilla + Firefox OS

Mozilla has release a public preview of Firefox OS which is aimed to compete with Google’s chrome OS. Their hope is to rally mobile and tablet manufactures to carry their web-only framework which also works with the HTML5 Web Standards.

What do these two companies see that we don’t see? Why are they investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the development and research of these types of devices that run proprietary operating systems?  The simple answer is that they believe that computing “offline” is a thing of the past. They believe that buying software or downloading software for a desktop no longer makes sense. They believe that unified, responsive software developed to meet web standards will ultimately replace desktop apps that we use everyday.  They believe that cloud storage will replace the hard drive, DVDs, and flash memory. They want to leverage cloud computing and HTML5 Web Standards as the ultimate replacement for offline computing that we are accustomed to today. But I ask myself, is this even realistic to think in this direction? Will people want to “always” be connected? Here are six hurtles that Google and Bandwidth providers must perfect in order for people to embrace this new movement we’re seeing.

1 – Apprehension about speed and reliability.

In order for people to work with confidence knowing that all of their “apps” and files can be easily accessible, they need to be reassured that a connection is always on and always fast. Desktops, tablets and mobile devices must always have the option for LTE connectivity. If you live in a more rural area, you may find that getting online via cell tower is next to impossible, let alone getting cell service.  Connectivity providers are slowly expanding their coverage maps each year and for the most part, the areas that are covered do not have a consistent experience. Also with networks throttling connection speeds and charging for bandwidth to retain profits it makes putting data in the cloud expensive and undesirable. Providers will need to find a new, more cost effective but profitable pricing structure to remove the speed and reliability apprehension.

2 – Concerns about Ownership & Security

When Facebook acquired Instagram, their privacy policy changed, making it possible for Instagram to use any photo uploaded to instragram for promotional purposes – less forcing ownership of the content in the provider’s hand. People want to be confident in the fact that their files and personal information can only be accessed by them and them alone, unless otherwise directed. With cloud storage, the risk of the cloud servers being attacked or a meltdown at a data center could potentially cause users to fear that their photos, documents and other files are at risk of being lost. Most if not all major cloud storage solutions have robust backup methods to reduce this risk, but people want options. If cloud storage providers make it easy for users to backup their information to a local storage like a flash drive or a SSD (solid state disk) the problem would be solved. I must also say that for content creators knowing that their unique content is stored on the cloud give some users concerns as to whether they fully own their data. Cloud Storage providers need to make their policies such that ensure any data stored on the cloud solely belongs to the original content creator and cannot be accessed without authorization.

3 – Having life time access to their files.

Services like Spotify or iTunes Match allow you to access a cloud based library of content. The moment you stop paying for the service, you no longer have access to the cloud. If the cloud will be the main storage for these devices, it is critical that the provider make available enough storage equal to local storage available in the cloud at no additional cost. For example if you bought a Laptop with a 1TB internal drive today, you have no question about how much storage you have and you have no fear of being charged a monthly fee if you run low on space. Providers must offer a service that guarantees space forever. In other words if you buy a device it should include various tiers of cloud storage that directly affect the upfront cost for acquiring the device and, have unlimited bandwidth. If you run out of space, a one time expansion fee would be made available, perhaps equal, to the price of a HDD to gain more space in the cloud. There must also be the assurance to the user that he will never be locked out of his cloud file storage even in the event that he fails to pay for other subscription services through the same provider.

Putting your personal data on new devices needs to be as easy as signing into a social network. The user buys a new device has a one time sign in and instantly sees their files and settings. Also if the user chooses to have a different configuration for each device, it must be easy for them to pick and choose which customizations they would like to apply based on the settings stored in the cloud.

4 – The fear of quality applications and tools being swept away. 

If you look at any Linux Distro, you will find that independent developers have created their equivalent for Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook. You can find alternatives to Photoshop and other productivity tools. With that said, the quality of these, “alternatives”, severely lack a disciplined or a uniform approach to design and the overall user experience. One of the reasons Apple products score so well in the minds of users is because Apple spent the time setting the tone providing guidelines that make successful apps. Google has launched a Chrome Webapp store, making it easy for users to browse and use HTML 5 apps that could potentially replace our downloaded apps that we use in operating systems today. Apple and Microsoft would need to provide html5 based web app stores to maintain a familiar library for users to have access to apps they learned to love.  An advantage of the new cloud computing based OS would be to remove the operational restrictions of certain apps on certain devices. All apps, whether downloaded from Google, Apple or Microsoft would run on any laptop, tablet or mobile device because they are all built using HTML5.

5 – Making websites and shortcuts feel and behave like apps.

There will need to be a hybrid approach to Webapps that allow programmers and designers to use graphic frameworks that make apps feel and respond in a quick native manor but are fully powered by a browser. if you think about it, the reason websites only feel right inside of a browser is because users are interacting with content that was specifically designed for a web browser. If the operating system was the browser no longer are forced to access websites and web apps from an independent “browser” like google chrome, safari or firefox. Viewing a traditional website would still behave the same as it does today and productivity apps that require multitasking would look and behave like software programs.  For tablets and smartphones multitouch and gesture support must be supported. Frameworks like jQtouch may address this limitation. HTML access to physical hardware such as the accelerometer or camera also must work without “drivers”.

 6 – Customization and settings.

Parents and those with loved ones under the age of 18 might have a concern with parental controls and restrictions. The browser which will also behave as the OS must have the same level of parental controls that apples iOS provides today. This would restrict times of access, content blocking and restricted access to the types of apps that can be opened or downloaded.

Why does all of this even matter?

The way we interact, design and create for laptops, tablets and mobile devices are quickly becoming fragmented. With ongoing announcements of new android phones, it feels like every week, we have yet another screen size to deal with. We are complicating the use of technology by building our core productivity tools on platforms that exist in an offline world.

Streamlining platforms to adhere to web standards will not remove competition. If anything it forces companies to higher standards, and makes better experiences. If Apple and Microsoft continue to develop their cloud offerings to the extent that Google is doing, there will still be a clear differentiation on where your cloud app came from, how it looks and behaves – as much as Apple, Microsoft and Google’ websites are very different. However the fragmented world of software compatibility will be history, making computers much more useful, easier to use and more accessible.