Chrome OS is little more than a Web browser, and is designed for users who do all of their computing online, providing just enough offline access to tide them over on plane rides (and even airplanes are starting to offer wireless Web access).
Google CEO Eric Schmidt says Chrome OS is the fulfillment of the "Network Computer" vision offered in the 1990s by the now-defunct Sun, his former employer. Google believes in a future of "100% Web," in which - similar to server-hosted virtual desktops - personal computers simply become "stateless devices that are just Web browsers," says Google senior product manager Rajen Sheth. The Google approach will grow more viable over time as Internet connectivity becomes ubiquitous.
Google and Microsoft have waged a public relations war, with Google on the side of Web-based computing and Microsoft insisting that the days of locally installed software are not over. But in reality, the line between the two companies' strategies is shifting as we speak, with Microsoft increasingly moving to mobility and cloud-based versions of its key software offerings, such as Exchange, Office and SharePoint.
"We are investing a lot in making sure our stuff works across the PC, phone and browser, and we will continue to invest there," says Microsoft's Tom Rizzo, senior director of Microsoft Online Services.
Even the hardware vendors that make billions of dollars outfitting data centers with ever-bigger and better equipment are getting the message, adapting to prevent the age of mobility and virtualization from passing them by.
At the May 2010 EMC World conference, EMC CEO Joe Tucci looked forward to a world where centralized storage systems accelerate the shift away from rigid desktop environments to a mobile computing experience, in which users simply pick whatever device they want and use it for both work and play.
"I think the concept of a personal computer is going to change dramatically," Tucci said.
It's already changing. As Aberdeen Group research analyst Andrew Borg puts it, "There is no defining characteristic to differentiate what we used to call a consumer device from what we call a professional device. That barrier has dissolved."