With ChromeOS, Google is betting the sever farm on a new model of computing that leaves applications on web servers and trades power for ease of use and reliability. Optimized for web work and little else, ChromeOS devices will be zippy browsers. But without the ability to run native applications, ChromeOS devices may not have the necessary power and flexibility users need to produce web content. If this is the model Google sees for the Internet's future, the web will be a quiet place.
The ChromeOS Model
Google's model for ChromeOS devices strips the hardware, operating system and running software down to the bare bones and provides users with a computing experience streamlined for the web. ChromeOS devices will run on the relatively low power Intel Atom and ARM processors, and the OS lacks a robust filesystem and the ability to install and run applications from the hard drive. Instead, ChromeOS relies on the growing number of increasingly complex web apps to do the heavy lifting, moving the applications themselves onto the cloud. (Gmail in place of Outlook, Office Live Workspace instead of MS Office, and Twitter.com rather than Tweetie.)
This model allows for cheap, extremely thin clients and web-accessible user data, but at the same time, disempowers users by denying them access to source code, and introduces new concerns about data ownership. It should be noted that ChromeOS is only one platform in a recent trend towards less capable devices like netbooks and smart phones.
This computing model fundamentally changes individual users' relationship with their software and their data. Web apps, because their source is inaccessible, are less flexible than native applications. And due to their low power architecture, dearth of RAM and, usually, hard drive capacity, these devices will be poor choices for anyone wanting to produce web content such as videos, animations or edited photos, tasks which typically require full-featured native applications like Final Cut, Flash and GIMP.
Not only, then, does the thin client model affect how individuals interact with their data, it may change the frequency with which they create content online. Viewed on a more macro scale, if it becomes the new computing paradigm, the thin client model has the potential to reduce the percentage of total web content created by individuals (as opposed to corporations and big media), perhaps even shifting norms of online discourse towards a unidirectional model, rather than the dialectic model most have come to expect online, especially after the web 2.0 explosion.
Who Creates the Content?
Research conducted in 2003 and 2005 suggested between 35-44% of all US Internet users created content online. The study based on 2005 data showed content creation was positively correlated not with a class of content producers, as might have been expected, but with technology that simplifies the process of creating content. Those with broadband connections at home, for example, reported higher levels of content creation than those with dial-up.
That same report indicated 51% of users under age 30 created content online, and a 2009 study identified those in the US aged 18-32 as the single largest cohort online at 30% of total US Internet users. Young Americans are also the second fastest growing cohort of mobile web users, but that "content uploads," such as sending pictures to Flickr or video to YouTube, account for only about a quarter of teen mobile media usage.
Simply stated, the data clearly demonstrates three important facts:
- Young users are most active online, as indicated by their large cohort and volume of content created
- Technology that facilitates content creation and sharing is correlated with higher levels of content creation
- Technology that limits content creation and sharing is correlated with lower levels of content creation
If the thin client model, with its limited content creation capabilities, does become the new paradigm for computing, and young users grow up with devices and computing models that fail to support content creation, there is legitimate cause for concern that the Internet's heretofore vibrant and chaotic culture of participation, the institution that provides the greatest access to democratic discourse, may begin to wither. Without powerful operating environments and free software that gives users real options, a generation of new Internet users will learn how to consume media on their devices, without necessarily learning how to contribute.