Google Docs? Impossible!

I’m busy working on a paper that should be done in a couple of days — whew! — which is the main reason I haven’t been posting here. When I reformulate it into a “talk,” I post the contents here in some form or other. (Possibly with slides, possibly just the audio, I’m not sure.)

Anyway, in the meantime, it struck me that back when I was an undergrad, I was talking with a computer science major about the way the Internet might change our thinking (and use) of software.

At the time, I suggested that eventually we might be able to dispense with most other software if we had good enough web browsers: music, video, office tools, and more could all simply run off the web if bandwidth were high enough and the browsers were developed well enough. Indeed, I suggested that the function of browser might subsume the older idea of OS — wherein the OS essentially just supports a kind of firmware OS/browser. I didn’t have that vocabulary then, because this was 1995 or so, but that was the general idea.

The computer science major told me that was impossible, not practicable, and so on.

Well, the OS hasn’t disappeared… yet. I’d bet Google is moving towards something like this, as more and more of what we used to do on our own computers is moved online. I can see something like that on the horizon for personal computing — and really, I can imagine the iPod working this way once wireless broadband gets as widespread and cheap as (or cheaper than) cell phone coverage is today.

The negatives are clearly visible. Pay-per .doc, controlled access of media and other cultural product archives, and so on… it’s all a little spooky. But either way, it just goes to show the creditability in what Clarke said about someone declaring something impossible: it’s not just distinguished elder scientists. Young people who are very up-to-date on the latest technologies can mispredict stuff just around the corner. And weirder, people who know very little about technology can make wild guesses that come weirdly close to what eventually really develops.

Which is not to say people who know less are better at guessing. It’s just that knowing the technicalities of today is a different skill set from guessing something of the vague shape of tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “Google Docs? Impossible!

  1. Well, the OS hasn’t disappeared… yet. I’d bet Google is moving towards something like this

    They are. The forthcoming ChromeOS is essentially the chrome browser running on a linux kernel and that’s it.

  2. Chris,

    Sadly, one cannot write a novel (usually approx. 90,000-100,000 words) on Google Docs, if one wants the ease of accessing it in one document. (Which, with editing and find and replace and so on, I would need.)

    But other than that and loading crap into my iPod (ie. files on a hard drive) that’s relatively close to describing me, too.


    Yeah, I kinda knew about that, but can one actually, say, play a DVD using ChromeOS using some kind of online applet the browser activates to operate the DVD drive? Okay, long term, there would be no storage media at all except online, mind, which means no more DVDs, only superbandwidth feeds, but… we’d have to get from here to there, and right here, my netbook has no drive, but all my other computers do have ’em. :)

    Which makes me curious how hardware will look in the world post-hyperbrowserization.

  3. I’m against the idea of “cloud computing” As you mentioned up above the fact that what you want to do with the computer will be controlled from the outside strikes me as a pretty dumb giving away of your privacy, and your right to self determination.

    It’s also one of the reasons I gave up on video games. I don’t want to have to wait for the game to connect to the company so it can ask for permission for me to play the game I paid for.

    I’ve never seen a web app that works as well as one on your computer, and while that may change, I don’t want to wait for whatever half-assed server the app is on for me to be able to continue my task. Assuming that server remains functioning.

    To sum up: No thanks.

  4. 1995? I remember this issue of downloadable programs (i.e. browsers effectively becoming OS) as being one of the core issues in the Microsoft IE vs. Netscape court case (US) in the mid-late 1990s. One of the arguments in the case was that Microsoft sought to freeze Netscape out because there was serious possibilty that browsers would effectively act as OS and allow downloadable programs (“middleware”) to work on any computers no matter if the underlying OS was Windows, Linux, or whatever (which could have made MS’s OS near-monopoly worthless by effectively bypassing the need for a particular OS). Some Netscape advocates, experts and lawyers argued that this was the reason why MS “tied” the explorer to the Windows and offered IE for free. So such possiblity of middleware was a serious concern (and deemed technically possible), at least since the latter half of 1990s.

    Asides: “Steam” (which is required for games from Valve, including Half-Life) is incredibly irritating, isn’t it?

    Also: Google docs cannot handle long docs? Do you know if Sun’s OpenOffice can handle long docs? Personally, I prefer my programs on my computer, thanks. I’ve been to too many places with too slow connections.

  5. Yeah, 1995. And yeah, when I commented about this someone else in the room said, “Hey, makes sense. There’s not much difference between Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer.” It might have been 1996, though.

    I seem to remember it kind of hitting mainstream consciousness around the release of Windows 98, when (as I remember) suddenly you really could use Windows Explorer as a browser — typing an URL into the address bar turned it into Internet Explorer straight away.

    And yeah, I haven’t tried those Valve games, so I don’t know about Steam.

    And no, Google Docs cannot handle more than a certain length of doc. I recall Charles Stross complaining about it, though my experience with it of late is that it’s okay to compose simple docs. But anything with footnotes or other complex stuff is liable to muck it up, and you’re better off with a traditional word processor for composing, and reserve Google Docs for archiving and sharing. (I think OpenOffice is much better at handling long docs. AbiWord was okay for short stories but choked on longer stuff, when OpenOffice didn’t.)

    I also have experienced slow connections. I do think a halfway solution is likely the route they’ll have to take — sorta online, and sorta offline, with synching when connections are good.

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