Google's Chrome OS is a Commitment Mechanism

December 26, 2009

Since June when Google announced it would be turning its Chrome web-browser into an operating system a lot of people have written about it. Google has now released the Chrome OS source code and netbook makers have already committed to shipping devices running the operating system next year. For a quick refresher on what the Chrome OS actually is see this FAQ or just watch this video:


I have wanted an operating system like this for a long time (read two years). But many people think the Chrome OS is too limited, too old-fashioned or just plain stupid. I won’t respond directly to those criticisms, but I will explain why I think Chrome OS is definitely the most promising software development of 2009.

In economics and game theory there is this concept of a “commitment mechanism” – something you choose to do now that might not be in your best interest in the short-term, but will restrict your future choices in a way that you know is optimal. For instance I choose all the time to avoid credit-cards with points-based rewards programs, because I know that if I have one I will waste way too much time trying to figure out how to maximize the value of my “rewards.” It’s just not worth it in the end, so I choose to avoid those offers.

Chrome OS is a commitment mechanism. By using it you commit yourself to using only hosted web-applications like Gmail, and Salesforce, and ING Direct, and Zoho, and 37signals. You commit yourself to this because you know that in the long run it is better for you. In a web-application only world you don’t worry about what device you’re using to access your applications and data; any device with a web-browser will do. You don’t worry about your computer crashing; just get a new one with a web-browser and you’re ready to go. You save money, since you don’t need any expensive hardware in your computer. And you’re more efficient, since your computer won’t need as much power and you’re not letting it sit unused all the time.

No you can’t run Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop on Chrome OS right now. You can’t run Mathematica or play Grand Theft Auto on Chrome OS right now. That’s the short-term cost of your commitment. But don’t be too short sighted; Hosted web-applications are here to stay. And I have no doubt that we will see “cloud” versions of those applications within five years. In fact Microsoft Office will be in the cloud next year. That’s the great thing about this commitment. By choosing this path you actually force application developers to move faster towards creating hosted and distributed “cloud” applications. And then everybody wins. Give credit to Google for pushing this vision forward, and providing the commitment mechanism we need.

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