Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: It's 2016, and Chrome OS is ascendant

The fat client desktop system has ruled computing for 30 years. Could Google Chrome OS and other cloud-based, thin-client systems dominate the next 30?

The very first PCs were just appearing when I started using computers. We had already seen the advent of microcomputers and minicomputers. Those machines were designed for people who loved technology, not people who loved getting work done with technology. For work, you used mainframes and midrange Unix and VMS computers with a terminal on the client end. The CP/M-80, Apple II and IBM PC changed all that. Fat client computers took over the world, and they're still reigning, in the form of Windows PCs and Macs.

But the PC is no Queen Elizabeth II. Its reign, half the length of hers, may be coming to an end.

Google thinks we're ready to say goodbye to fat client systems and move to cloud-based operating systems, such as its own Chrome OS. Instead of PCs, it wants us to use Chromeboxes and Chromebooks. We're resisting, but I think we'll come around to Google's point of view in a few short years.

Not that the old mainframe/terminal model ever really went away. Some companies still issue thin clients that are basically input devices, with most of the actual computing happening on a distant server. Others use its descendant, client/server systems. More companies might have stuck with those models, but users made their preferences known. They liked the "personal" in "personal computer." They wanted their computers to run just the way they wanted.

But as always happens with technology, evolution continued. Over the last few years, PCs have become commodities. Off the top of your head, can you explain what differentiates Dell from HP from Lenovo PCs? Meanwhile, we've moved huge quantities of our business and consumer computing to the Web and the cloud. That means that today, there just isn't that much that you can you do on a PC that you can't do on a Chromebook. Indeed, some people, including yours truly and Computerworld's J.R. Raphael, were already using Chromebooks all the time even before the recent refresh.

Today, there are as many useful, fun and essential programs on the Internet as there are on PCs. But, unlike PCs, which require constant upgrades and expert management, Chrome systems automatically update constantly. Want to set up a thousand Chromebooks to access only your corporate-approved websites? I can do that in less time than it takes me to write this column.

Chrome OS is easy for users and administrators, and it's cheaper. That's a powerful combination.

What keeps that combo from winning the day is the reluctance to rely on a machine that can't do much of anything without an Internet connection. But that resistance is going to fade as we all begin to realize that the same thing is more and more true of fat clients.

Microsoft seems oddly intent to help Google achieve its plans. Have you seen Windows 8? I have, and I hate it. That's not blind Windows bashing. I like Windows 7; it's the best desktop Microsoft ever created. But Windows 8 throws away the Windows 7 Aero interface and replaces it with Metro. If you know how to use a Web browser, you already know how to use Chrome OS, even though it's really just the Chrome Web browser running on a thin layer of Linux. You don't -- boy, how you don't -- know how to use Windows 8.

So here's what I see happening. Four years from now, in 2016, most desktop users will still be using Windows -- but it's more likely to be Windows 7 or even XP than Windows 8. There will be more Mac OS X users than ever before, but not as many as will then be using Chrome OS. What will be most important, though, is the trend, and most of us will be moving to cloud-oriented operating systems.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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