Cyberclinic: Should we be worried about a browser's power?

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The Independent Tech

Last year, Google employees took a video camera into Times Square and asked 50 people the supposedly simple question: "What's a browser?" The response they were looking for was "a piece of software that lets you view web pages". But the range of responses they received illustrated how few people knew the answer (confusion between a browser and a search engine was common), and also how little this knowledge gap matters. People just turn on the computer, launch a browser and access the web. Semantic distinctions are unimportant, because for many, the browser is the internet – and, increasingly, the browser is the computer.

This is the target market for Chrome OS, Google's widely trailed operating system for desktops, laptops and netbooks that's just been given a vague 2011 launch date. You start up the machine, it connects to the internet and displays a browser window. That browser, and all the other applications you might use within it – word processors, email, games – are stored remotely: no installation, no maintenance. Your files are stored remotely, too. So you can log into any machine running Chrome OS, from anywhere, and it'll look and feel like your computer; for those who use computers exclusively for the internet, it cuts out all the clutter and complexity. Simple is good, surely?

Simplification, however, isn't always welcomed by those immersed in computing. It's almost as if technology obsessives can't bear for that world to be made accessible, so the very idea of Chrome OS has been getting a rough ride on online forums. "But it's just a browser," they say. "How would I use Photoshop?" The answer is, of course, that you wouldn't. As one Google representative said, defending Chrome OS, when people say, "It's just a browser, nothing exciting here" – that's the whole point. It's not meant for the kind of people who complain about it being underpowered, in the same way that milk floats aren't designed for boy racers. But if you find computers overwhelming, it might be up your street.

Actually, geeks could probably do more with a browser-based OS than they think. Google has just launched a Chrome OS store which sells a range of browser-based apps, but there are many others out there that you can already use: Mugtug for image editing and manipulation, for example, or Roc, an online music creator. It's a sector destined to grow.

Which isn't to say there aren't drawbacks. The most obvious one is that a dodgy or absent internet connection turns your computer into the equivalent of a car with no petrol: sleek, attractive, but ultimately not much use. Then we have to come to terms with our stuff no longer being stored on the computer. We're used to our email being stored remotely, but extending that idea to our personal files or the applications we've paid for requires another mental leap. Who has it? Where is it? Does Google have it? If it does, can I trust Google to look after it, and not share that information with other companies? If we're prepared to accept these kinds of trade-offs, Chrome OS – and others like it – could herald an era of cheap, easily accessible computing. Which, regardless of sneering from geeks, has to be a good thing.

* After voicing concern in last week's column about the addictive nature of social media games such as FarmVille, I've seen a couple of studies emerging in the past few days that have sought to establish gaming as an unremitting force for good. These have been proudly brandished by organisations such as the Entertainment Software Association, a US gaming industry body, as proof that games are good for you; while things are rarely that simple ("Guinness is good for you" is a comparable claim that springs to mind), the findings are interesting. The first, conducted by the University of Colorado, established that using video games during job training creates a workforce that is more knowledgeable, more skilful and retains information for longer. The second, released by an organisation called the American Pain Society (doesn't sound like much fun), has discovered that games can be as effective as aspirin in increasing our tolerance to pain, so distracted are our senses by the alternative reality. I hereby commission the creation of a game to help to train politicians to deal with the global credit crisis better, and while they're getting to grips with it, we can blot out the economic horror by slaughtering troops in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Win-win.

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