Kool-Aid ManI’m following the stories of the Google Chrome OS release today and am a bit concerned about some of the claims that are being made.  Mashable even goes to the extent of predicting Google is going to “destroy the desktop” with it.  Google is banking on the fact that many users use their computers solely for accessing Twitter, Facebook, and E-mail through a browser.  They’re right – we’re becoming more and more of a web-reliant society, and the cloud is rendering much of the fluff that happens on the traditional operating system unnecessary.  However it concerns me when a company so known for wanting to run that operating system fully from the cloud is the one pushing this model.  Let’s not kid ourselves here – Google wants you to run as many of their services as possible (since they’re a web company) so they can own more information about you.  That’s not always a bad thing – the more they know about you, the better an experience they can provide for you with as little effort on your part as possible.  I argue it’s the wrong approach though, and it’s harmful to user-controlled and open identity approaches on the web. My hope is that Google has a plan for this.

A Client-based OS vs. a Web-based OS

Let’s look at the old (well, I guess it’s not old yet) approach to operating systems.  They were all about the user.  A user booted up a computer they could very well have even built themselves.  The user logged in to that computer.  On Windows machines they have a Control Panel where they can adjusted their system settings.  On Macs they have System Preferences.  On *nix they have command-line (okay, I’m joking there, mostly).  They can install the programs they like.  They can adjust who can and can’t log in through the computer.

The problem with putting the user in control is that they have to be responsible for their data.  They have to be responsible for their Hard Drive not dying and losing an entire life history because of that lack of attention.  Most users don’t know how to do that.  Not only that but allowing user control includes additional overhead on the operating system, slowing boot times down, adding complexity, and increasing the learning curve for most users that just want to access their e-mail or visit Facebook, etc.

This is why a web-based OS could make sense.  The web OS focuses on one thing and one thing only – moving the user experience wholly to the cloud.  The cloud becomes the new OS, and services can be provided from there to shift the burden from the user to the cloud in storing their data.  Great!  Where do I sign up?

The Problem With a 100% Cloud Solution

There’s still a problem with this model though – with a 100% cloud-based solution the user loses all control over the experience and puts it into the hands of one or two very large entities.  The only approach to ubiquity for users is for those entities to have their hands across every website those users visit and every web app those users run.  That’s a little scary to tell you the truth.  With a 100% web-based approach the user loses control of their identity and puts it in the hands of the BigCo.  As Phil Windley puts it, this puts the focus back on Location, which is business focused, rather than Purpose, which is consumer focused.

Let’s try to look at this from another angle.  What if we were all on 100% Web-based Operating Systems and Facebook were to successfully get Facebook Connect into the hands of every single website and every single company on the web in some sort of open manner?  You’d be able to visit any website, bring your contacts from Facebook and other data from Facebook to those sites and they’d be able to customize the experience to you and provide context, right?  That’s partially true.  A server-based approach can provide some context.

However, let’s say I’m a huge Ford fan and I want to see what types of Ford cars compare with the cars I’m viewing on Chevy’s website.  Sure, Ford could provide an API to enable other websites to integrate their own context into other websites, but do you think Chevy is ever going to integrate this?

Heck, if we go back to the standpoint of Facebook, even Google and Facebook are having issues working together on that front (look at Google Friend Connect – see Facebook in any of their providers?).  The fundamental flaw of a server-based approach is there is absolutely no way organizations are going to cooperate enough to be able to provide context across 100% of the web.  No matter how many foundations are formed there will always be some disconnect that hurts the user.  The only way that’s going to happen is via the client.

Enter Information Cards and the Selector

OpenIDSelectorAs I mentioned earlier I’ve been attending the Kynetx Impact conference here in Utah hosted by Phil Windley , author of Digital Identity published by O’Reilly, also attended by such Identity superstars as Kim Cameron (who probably made Microsoft more open than it ever has been with his pioneering of the Information Card concept), Doc Searls (author of The Cluetrain Manifesto), Drummond Reed, and Craig Burton.  My eyes have truly been opened – before anything Social can truly perfect itself we have to get identity right, and a 100% web-based approach just isn’t going to do that.  I’ll be talking about that much more on this blog over the next bit – this is the future of the web.

Kim Cameron pioneered a concept called Information Cards, in which you, as a user, can store different profiles and privacy data about yourself for each website you visit.  When you visit the websites you frequent around the web, you can be presented by your client or browser with previously used Information cards that you can choose to identify yourself with. This can be a very useful and secure approach to combatting phishing (when users become reliant on information cards the authenticating site can’t obtain their log in credentials), for instance.  Check out the “Good Tweets” section of his blog post here for context.

Another great use of Information Cards, a client-based approach, is the ability to provide browser or OS-based context for each user.  This is something Kynetx is working to pioneer.  Craig Burton has talked about the concept of the “Selector”, and how the next evolution of identity from the cookie has now moved to user-controlled context as their accessing the web.  The idea is, as you select an information card, a service such as Kynetx can run on the browser (right now via extension, but future browsers will most likely have this built in) and provide a contextual experience for the user based on the “Selector” for each website that user visits.  The user sets the privacy they want to maintain for those sites, and they are given a contextual experience based on the selectors they have enabled, regardless of where they are visiting on the web.

One example of this, as I mentioned earlier, was at the Kynetx Impact conference when I visited Facebook.com I was presented with HTML in the upper-right corner of Facebook asking me to become a fan of Kynetx and providing me with the latest Tweets talking about the conference.  Among other examples shown, for AAA Auto service, members could provide a selector so that when they’re searching for hotels AAA can customize the experience on Google.com or Hotels.com or anywhere they want to let the user know which hotels provide a AAA discount and what the discount is.  AAA doesn’t need to provide an API to these sites.  They don’t need to negotiate deals.  They can just do it, and enable the users to turn it on at their full discretion.  The consumer is in full control with these technologies and they’re available to any brand right now.  Kynetx has an open API for this that they just launched yesterday.

This form of ubiquitous context for the user can’t happen in a full web-based model.  Users will always lose some sort of context if the entire experience is controlled by the web.  There has to be some involvement by the client to allow the user to truly own their identity and control the experience they have on the web.

Google Has a Responsibility to Do This Right

Google hasn’t revealed their end game in this yet, but my hope is that they continue their “Do No Evil” approach and take this as an opportunity to give the user some more control in the Web OS experience.  There is a huge opportunity for Google to be leaders in this space, and that goes beyond just Open ID.  Google could integrate Information Cards and selectors right into the Chrome browser, for instance, forcing an open, user-controlled approach to identity and introducing a new approach to marketing on the web that is controlled by the consumer.

I hope that the leaders in open standards take note and continue to push Google in this process.  The user deserves this control.  I still think the Web OS has a huge place in our future, but my hope is that we do it right from the start and keep the user in control of this process.  The way it stands it’s looking a little too Google controlled.

Be sure to check out my Twitter stream from tonight for a few more links and thoughts on this subject.

Information Card Image Courtesy Kim Cameron

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