A View from Christopher Mims
How the Rise of Google's Chromebook Is Like the Rise of Multicellular Life
A dense, always-on wireless communications network could be the oxygen that leads to an explosion of new forms in the tech ecosystem.
Google’s Chromebook is nothing new. So-called “thin clients” have been tried many times before, and they’ve never really worked. But there’s an important reason why Google’s entirely Internet-dependent, browser-only laptop will succeed where other thin clients failed, and it has nothing to do with Google itself. At least not yet.
Yesterday I used the rise of mammals to explain how a company like Apple could spend two-thirds of its existence as a niche player before finally coming to dominate a brand new category. That might make it sound like I believe Apple will dominate the future, as well, but I doubt it. To understand why, we have to look much deeper into the history of life on earth.
Life on earth is four billion years old, yet it took three quarters of that time for anything but the most primitive single-celled organisms to appear on the planet. Because oxygen, apparently, is a precondition for complex, multicellular life. Once primitive algae had produced enough of it, things that respire as we do could evolve. This was easily the most significant event in the history of life on earth, aside from its abiotic genesis.
For Google, the increasingly available broadband / fiber-optic / wireless network is oxygen. Smart phones are proof enough that thin clients can succeed in this early atmosphere, but it’s not yet rich enough for them to become the technological equivalent of anything more complex than jellyfish. Which, not incidentally, ruled the seas of the early earth.
Denser, higher-bandwidth communications networks(more wi-fi hotspots; more numerous, smaller and faster cell towers) are the direct equivalent of a denser atmosphere. Google’s Chromebook not only has the ability to take advantage of this ever-improving network, it also has the power to drive it, just as smartphone adoption has already forced cell carriers to invest heavily in their existing networks.
As we’ve seen, the Chromebook is just one of a multitude of devices that will come to take this network for granted. We will all come to expect that our data will be instantly accessible across all our devices. As in the Chromebook, local storage will simply be a solution to an engineering problem: a local cache to assure that performance is sufficiently speedy.
It’s important that we begin to think about this network, this dense mesh of always-on connectivity, in terms of what it will give rise to, and not merely how it’s manifesting today. How distributed can computing get? Will centralized servers be replaced by countless computational nodes? How will the “Internet of things” play out as not merely a sensory network for this new Internet, but a source of potential computational power?