Chrome OS and Autonomy

Luis Villa pointed  folks on the Autonomo.us email list to this essay at Free Software Magazine by Tony Mobily. The article title, “Why Google Chrome OS will turn GNU/Linux into a desktop winner,” is a good summary of Mobily’s basic argument.
Although there has been lots of discussion about Chrome OS in the free and open source software communities (e.g. on LWN), its worth qualifying this post by saying that, beyond Google’s announcement, we don’t actually know very much about Chrome OS. But although it is probably an overstatement to suggest (as some have) that Chrome OS will simply boot into a browser, Google is being quite up front about the fact that it is being designed for, “people who live on the web” and will be an environment where, “most of the user experience takes place on the web.”
With the rise of network services, the idea of an operating system that is largely reduced to a web browser is no longer difficult to imagine. Even if one were to limit themselves entirely to Google services, one would have a word processor, spreadsheet, email client, photo management software, chat client, RSS reader, and much more — most of the applications that most people use. As Mobily points out, this means that the details of any operating system begin to matter less. It doesn’t matter if your OS doesn’t have many native programs; if the programs you want run over the web, all you need is a browser.
Mobily argues that Chrome OS will be a win for GNU/Linux on the desktop because Google’s might and market power will help free software succeed where it has struggled in the past. And he might be right. But even if Mobily is completely right and Chrome OS becomes a raging success, it is not at all clear that this will represent a victory of any meaningful sort for software freedom and for users’ autonomy.
Chrome OS is, as it is described, an explicit attempt to build a system that changes where ones computing happens. In doing so, Google is trying to create an OS built around “Software as a Service” that replaces applications a user might run on their own computer with applications that runs on servers outside user control. A Chrome OS user’s computer doesn’t need to be powerful — Google claims that Chrome OS will be ideally suited to low power netbooks — because the user’s computation is happening on Google’s servers instead of the netbook itself.
If switching to Chrome OS means giving up Thunderbird to use GMail, or giving up Openoffice.org to use Google Docs, or giving up Pidgin to use a web-based Google Talk, or giving up Evolution to use Google Calendar, we have reduced the influence and success of the free software desktop, not sealed its victory as Mobily suggests. In a SaaS world, there will be less free software being used and, much more importantly, users will be less free.
With every shift from a piece of free software to a web-based network service, we have moved from a situation where a user had control over his or her software — users’ of “traditional” free software have access to source and have control over the system on which the computer runs — to a situation where users have very little control over their software at all. Google offers no source for the applications that run their web services and, even if they did, they do not offer users the ability to change the software that runs on Google servers.
Chrome OS, or any OS designed around pushing users computation off their computers and onto servers outside of their control is regressive for software freedom. If Chrome OS is, as Mobily suggests, the key to free software’s victory on the desktop, it would be be a ironic and bitter victory indeed.

13 thoughts on “Chrome OS and Autonomy

  1. Kapil Hari Paranjape

    Thanks for an interesting article making an important point.

    With every shift from a piece of free software to a web-based network
    service, we have moved from a situation where a user had control over
    his or her software

    Instead of just “software” I would have said “software” and “data”.

    If indeed, Google OS is to used over the ‘net, how are people who
    use this system supposed to keep their documents secret from the
    “all-seeing eye” of Google?

    Kapil.

  2. RhinoKitty

    I am at a loss to understand why people are so romanced by applications that run “in the cloud” anyway. People intuitively think that a calendar running on the network is somehow easier than one on their computer, but most non-technical users are at a loss to explain why this is.

    The main advantage is clearly the fact that a user can access that calendar (or spreadsheet, or IM client) from multiple locations or devices. The main disadvantage is that when you don’t have Internet access you don’t have your application.

    Although there are some (laconi.ca, etc..) really great Free Software web applications, mostly I see the skew to be between nonfree web applications and Free(dom) desktop applications.

    I really think just getting cracking on development of Free alternatives will be the best move here (go autonomo.us!). There are more privacy scandals daily with large nonfree web applications.

    Whoops! Last.fm handed over your listening data to the RIAA, why not try a SAAS that respects your freedom? You don’t even have to take our word for it, look at the code yourself! In fact, run the code on your own server if you really don’t trust us (trust no one!), we have designed it to work from any server, and it can still interoperate with other instances of the software, should you so desire. You can instantly spawn 14 new competitors to any proprietary SAAS, tank the old way and get people using better, safer and more Free(dom) respecting software.

    Can your proprietary tool self replicate when damaged?

  3. Marco Barulli

    Hi Mako,

    With every shift from a piece of free software to a web-based network
    service, we have moved from a situation where a user had control over
    his or her software — users’ of “traditional” free software have access
    to source and have control over the system on which the computer
    runs — to a situation where users have very little control over their
    software at all.

    True, but just imagine if Chrome OS would embrace AGPL as the standard license. Also providing tools to easily move your data to a different instance of the same web app hosted on a different web server (maybe your own).

    I know it will probably never happen, but it would be interesting to fork the supposedly open Chrome OS project to implement such a scenario.

    Marco
    Clipperz co-founder

  4. Omer

    If Chrome OS is a raging success, then it indicates a shift in the way we interact with our computers. Initially, Google will be ahead of the game, but eventually other companies and organizations will join in. Why can’t we have ad-supported, open source web applications to use on our new web-based systems? Sure, it could mean working from scratch many times, but it also means a level playing field where the speed and quality of open source development will thrive.

  5. yungchin

    When you say “If switching to Chrome OS means giving up Thunderbird to use GMail, or giving up Openoffice.org to use Google Docs, or giving up Pidgin to use a web-based Google Talk, or giving up Evolution to use Google Calendar, we have reduced the influence and success of the free software desktop, not sealed its victory as Mobily suggests”, I feel this should be put in a numbers-context: the percentage of desktop users that run a free OS is currently well below 5%.

    I would think then, that most of the market share that Chrome OS will be grabbing will come from non-free OSes – which would cause no “net loss of freedom”. Another reason to believe that is that users that made a conscious choice for a free desktop-OS are less likely to give up their freedom than users who didn’t have that freedom anyway. In other words: Chrome OS is not so much a threat to us as it is to MS and Apple.

    On the other hand, we will benefit from Chrome OS’ success: it’s GNU/Linux base means we too will enjoy more extensive hardware support from vendors, and the success of Google Docs will help the push towards actually using those open document standards (I still find many peers annoyed when I send them ISO-compliant ODFs :)).

    I guess I’d even go as far as saying that anything that helps break the monopoly-situation on the desktop market will improve the situation for free software, too, simply because having multiple big players results in faster adoption of open standards.

  6. Kai Hendry

    The “cloud” is an opensource stack. From HTML5, to the browser, to the httpd.

    I don’t buy the argument that since we’re moving to Web based applications we have to use Google services. No we don’t.

    The Linux desktop Gnome/KDE fanboys need to read How Microsoft Lost the API War and start creating some kick-ass Web applications instead. :)

    The Free desktop is the browser!

  7. Ian Bicking

    I think some of these arguments confuse free-as-in-licensing with free-as-in-freedom. For most people Gmail is no less free than Thunderbird. They are both opaque programs that they won’t extend or modify. For many people Gmail is in fact much more free, because their mail is hosted with a relatively disinterested third party (Google) instead of an employer. Hell, Google is usually more respectful of its users than a friend will be (simply because of the anonymity of commodity services).

    In many ways the web is much more engaging and free than desktop free software. Actually, in almost all ways. There’s no Wikipedia on the desktop, or even real wikis; even the things that call themselves wikis show off how different the ideas are: freedom to change your private information is nowhere near as democratic as freedom to change everyone’s publicly shared data. And maybe you are more free locally (no reverts), but it’s only because no one cares. Impotence will garner you a great deal of freedom.

    And for the record, with Appengine you actually can change the software on Google’s servers. It’s not a panacea, it’s not complete, not every piece of software (even on Appengine) will be modifiable. Probably not most; but Google can’t change that even if it wanted to. Still the only environment as democratic as Appengine is the LAMP stack; which is great for LAMP, but I think Google deserves some credit for approaching the problem with a pointedly simplified environment. And LAMP and the web are frankly is more accessible, more programmable, more viable as a democratic platform for people to make a difference with software, than is any desktop environment.

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