Where’s My Google PC?

It’s coming. It’ll be great. You’ll hate it.

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For a sneak peek at the future of computing, go to YouOS and click “Try a Demo.” Your browser window turns into a desktop of its own, with sub-windows for e-mail, chat, and Web browsing. There are also links on the YouOS desktop for a sticky-notes program and a rich-text editor. But these programs aren’t on your hard drive—they’re running somewhere in the vast unknown Internet.

YouOS is the fledgling startup of four recent college grads with a bit of angel funding. Its simplicity makes it a great demo. Anyone who logs on can instantly spot the big idea: You don’t need Windows! You don’t even need a PC! You can login and work from anywhere using any gadget with a screen and a keyboard.

Just because the demo and the name are cool doesn’t mean YouOS will replace Windows. It does, however, serve as a proof-of-concept for people who doubt the viability of Web-based operating systems. Check out YouOS for 10 minutes, then imagine the same project on a billion-dollar budget. Now do you think the mythical Google PC that’s allegedly being secretly developed in Silicon Valley—or in China or on a Ukrainian IRC channel—will become reality?

It makes sense for Google to develop a Web-based PC. To be clear, a Google PC needn’t involve a new gadget like the “thin client” gear of the 1990s. Every computer in the world is capable of running a Web browser. We might not realize it, but we all already have Google PCs.

You could still run Windows on a Google PC; it just wouldn’t matter if you did or not. Most Google PC rumors imagine a low-priced, Windows-less, entry-level computer for the Wal-Mart set. That could be part of the plan, but it would just be one more option. Instead of trying to convince every consumer on the planet to buy a new machine, it makes a lot more sense for Google to build a super-service that you could log into from any computer, phone, or television, or car and airplane seatback. You would be able to access your files anywhere by logging in, calling up your desktop, and popping into Google’s array of Gmail-like applications for word processing, photo editing, and anything else you can think of.

I spent a dozen years working on and around network-based computers and thin clients. As a result, I know their advantages: A network-based PC could offer more file space, faster searches, guaranteed backups, cheaper software costs, login-from-anywhere portability, and far less home maintenance. Let’s skip ahead, though, to the most counterintuitive advantage: Dollar for dollar, network-based computers are faster.

Unless you’re playing Grand Theft Auto or watching HDTV, your network isn’t the slowest part of your setup. It’s the consumer-grade Pentium and disk drive on your Dell, and the wimpy home data bus that connects them. Home computers are marketed with slogans like “Ultimate Performance,” but the truth is they’re engineered to run cool, quiet, and slow compared to commercial servers. Google’s Web search is blindingly fast because your requests get handled by a sprawling array of loud, hot, power-hungry server racks that you’d never allow in your house. All your home computer has to do is draw the results of Google’s massive data-mining process on its screen—that’s the easy part.

The same division of labor applies to Gmail, Google Maps, and most of Google’s slowly but surely growing list of applications. Even graphics-intensive programs like CAD software and photo editing tools can be made to run quickly over a network connection if you optimize them properly. Google’s network wouldn’t have to play DVD-quality video. Google Video quality would do—you could play high-def movies and games locally. The idea wouldn’t be to eliminate Windows desktops and laptops but to marginalize them. As long as you’ve got your Google apps, it doesn’t matter if you’re using Windows, Linux, or an Amiga.

Technically there’s no reason Google couldn’t build the world’s best network computer. Are they doing it? I think so. I sat at Google chief Eric Schmidt’s feet taking dictation during a press conference at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Pushy tech journalists goaded Schmidt that he’d be “stupid” not to build a Google PC. “We have no interest. … I guess some people don’t believe it,” he ribbed back. It was just like watching Steve Jobs dismiss video iPod rumors. Schmidt’s lips said no, but his eyes said, Isn’t this fun?

A network PC plan would explain why veteran Microsoft technology evangelist Vic Gundotra, famous for winning software developers over to Windows, jumped ship to Google last week. Vic would be anyone’s first pick to persuade software makers to build Web-based programs to Google’s specs. A network PC plan would explain Google’s bid to set up citywide wireless broadband for San Francisco—the perfect test market. It would also elucidate the company’s oft-rumored interest in buying Internet backbone fiber in bulk. Microsoft’s Windows Live seems like an attempt to compete on the same turf, but you gotta wonder why Gundotra switched teams. If Google rolls out enough Web apps before Windows Vista ships, it might persuade people not to blow $2,000 on a new Microsoft machine.

Now, a few caveats before you get too stoked over Microsoft’s imminent demise. Having been a network-computer advocate myself, I think they’re cool. But I also know the resistance a Google PC will run into.

First, there’s the inexplicable human urge to own stuff and have it in your possession. No matter how snazzy Google’s online services, people will want to store their files at home. My starving-artist friends use Gmail, but as soon as they land real jobs they buy brand-new Macs and start keeping their mail on their own computers. Inevitably they lose it and don’t have a backup, but they still like the feeling of controlling their data. Every network computing gadget I worked on faced the same objection from would-be customers: “Those things are fine for secretaries, but I need a real computer on my desk.”

Second, a network computer works fine if you’ve got a fast, flawless network connection. Most of us in the United States (not to mention worldwide) don’t and won’t for a long time. My premium-grade DSL is acting up this very second. Google wants to light up San Francisco with Wi-Fi, yet they couldn’t get one roomful of reporters online at Google Press Day.

But the real deal-breaker is trust: Are you going to let someone else handle all your data? If you use a Google-served computing environment, everything you upload, download, or type potentially passes through Google’s computers. I’ll be the first to sign up, but that’s my blind faith in statistics. If there’s a privacy breach at Google, I figure I’ll be about 10 millionth in line to get hurt. How about it: Would you trust Google to protect your e-mail, your tax documents, and your family photos?