Who Invented the Chromebook?

When looking at the origins of a tech product the view can be quite murky. With so much at stake, a lot of effort and manpower goes into the products we use today. Often these are iterated so many times it is hard to know where the roots of the idea came from. The origins of Google’s Chrome OS  are just such a beast and the full truth may never be known, not because someone is hiding something, but because it is lost in the massive effort involved.

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Smartphone
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Glowing Light BulbI learned this very clearly in the 1990’s. I was fortunate to be involved in the launching of a number of network switching technologies. I was part of industry advisory panels on some high profile projects. On my various trips out to Silicon Valley I witnessed waves of brilliant minds putting forth ideas. I even had a few winners of my own that ended up in production. Innovation in a large company is chaotic and only a gifted forensic investigator would be able to track down the origins of some of these ideas.

To understand where this particular animal came from you have to look both inside Google and out. Most great ideas are built upon concepts executed elsewhere and to say that Google singularly invented this powerful, disruptive platform is naive. I see three clear points of innovation when I consider the Google Pixel and the OS that I am writing this article about.

  1. Google
  2. Netbooks/Tablets
  3. The Palm Foleo

Google

A couple of reference points can be found below.

Jeff Nelson’s personal blog post is here.

Coverage from Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols can be found here.

ada_lovelaces_197th_birthday-991005-hpClearly Jeff Nelson  is a very intelligent engineer who had some really innovative ideas at the time. The ideas behind the OS in RAM, and light and fast are obvious Chrome OS attributes. I would also observe that the simple fact he was awarded a patent AND his post is still online are a sign that he is not full of baloney. If his claims were bogus, the post would have been removed long ago. I think the truth of his claims are simply lost in ambiguity.

Aside from Mr. Nelson I would imagine there are hundreds of brilliant engineers that worked very hard to launch the platform. I for one would appreciate seeing these innovators recognized in some forum. They simply did really good work and are changing the face of computing. Disrupting Microsoft and Apple in the same move is quite an accomplishment.

Netbooks & Tablets

In order to understand Chromebooks you have to look at them in the context of both of these product categories. Essentially any of the new models of Chromebooks released in the last year give you the best of both tablets and netbooks. Netbooks were a response to bloated Windows computers that were loaded with crapware and a user nightmare from the time they were purchased. The original netbooks were based on a lightweight linux distro and were really good at navigating the internet, reading email, and interacting in social networks. They also provided a sound platform for basic content creation and editing. Sound familiar?

bigstock-Laptop-with-blank-notepad-and--33156902Microsoft immediately responded with thinning down Windows XP and leaning on all their partners to kill the linux option. I believe this doomed the platform because very rapidly netbooks became bloated Windows computers that were loaded with crapware and a user nightmare from the time they were purchased. They were just cheap Windows machines and remain so today.

Tablets come from the smartphone and the cloud. They are also really good at some of the same tasks as netbooks but are founded in ready access to data from anywhere. There is typically very little stored locally in a tablet and usage is focused around interfacing to network and cloud services. This platform is at its peak at the moment and its future is a little unknown. I think the next twelve months will tell us a lot.

Palm Foleo

I am still amazed by this product that never was. The Foleo was touted as a Netbook back in 2007 but was referred to as a Mobile Companion. The story of how the industry pundits killed a device that was in full production before it actually launched is an interesting tale but one that is told elsewhere. One of the original stories of the demise of the Foleo can be found here.

palm_foleoWhat I want to focus on is the visionary function. The focus of this device was really centered around productivity. At the time this was developed we were limited to smartphones and laptops for mobile connectivity. Laptops struggled  with battery life and were encumbered by long boot times. The combination of the two left highly productive people frustrated with their limited ability to generate value while on the move. Smartphones were fine for consuming content in a limited way (small screen) but creating content was very difficult.

Palm spotted a way to provide smartphone users a tool to be productive. This goal was in focus with their past. The original Palm Pilot was conceived as a “data bucket”, the Foleo envisioned a way to readily create and interact in a flexible way with your data. Unfortunately we will never know if this product would have worked with its obvious limitations. The biggest limitation was it needed a smartphone for email, really silly in hindsight and I wonder if this would have been immediately fixed if the product had moved forward. Alas, Palm chased another operating system and failed. Now just a grease spot in the road of progress we can only wonder what might have been.

Conclusion

All of that rambling aside I hope you can see a few of the influences that likely drove the development of the Chromebook and ChromeOS. We may never know who actually invented the idea of the Chromebook but we can acknowledge all those that influenced its creation. As the platform emerges from obscurity to the limelight I am certain many people will move to take credit for this revolution.

One side note to those tech old timers. Look at all the platforms and the percentage of computing devices based on a linux kernel. Looks like the good guys won and Chromebooks would have never happened without the open source community.

9 Comments

  1. Rob Farnham March 14, 2014 at 3:51 PM #

    I think cloud computing was destined for Google since they started email and not long after Google docs. I think the other products were stepping stones more so for us consumers to buy into the idea of this way of securing our data into the cloud.

    • Jeff Nelson March 18, 2014 at 8:43 PM #

      Michael, thank you for drawing attention to this issue. I have also asked Google to provide a history, but so far they have not responded. Unfortunately, companies generally don’t have an incentive to publicly recognize the accomplishments of their past or present employees, and in this case given the tremendous success of Chromebook I’m sure they are afraid it might become some kind of IP ownership lawsuit.

      On the contrary, I fully admit that I worked on the OS for nearly a year and a half at Google, used their hardware, sent it out to a company wide mailing list, and even showed it off to key Google executives. Not to mention the fact, my patent is assigned to Google. Their ownership of the IP could not be any more clear.

      The SVJ article was a mistake in my opinion. A Google engineer made imprudent remarks expressing uncertainty about events that happened 7 years earlier on Feb 14, 2013. Google management stepped in and immediately told them to stop posting, and nothing has been said since that day. Unfortunately, a journalist felt it was important enough to write about the G+ exchange. Not to criticize, but I hope we aren’t at that point where paid journalists are re-stating Facebook and G+ comments and calling it “news”.

      In any case, the important people at Google know exactly why my name is on the patent, and the operating system itself is my best witness of all.

      • Michael March 18, 2014 at 10:04 PM #

        Jeff, thanks for posting. I am not a journalist, simply a heavy tech user that is very interested in the development of some of these technologies. I appreciate your comments and if you see anything that is not factual please point it out. I have no problem revising. I hope to get a chance to meet you sometime and hear some of your stories.

    • Dave April 24, 2017 at 2:10 PM #

      No dip sherlock

  2. Tom C. March 31, 2014 at 1:24 PM #

    Thanks for the article, Michael. While I understand that you were focusing on the Chromebook as hardware, it’s always struck me that the “killer app” for the Chromebook/Chrome OS is the ability to run all your apps from the Web. Netscape first saw this opportunity in the late 90’s (I’m not sure of the year), but have enough wealth and power to overcome Microsoft’s attack in the form of MS IE as a no-cost browser. We’ll never know if the Netscape Application Server would have been able to pull it off, given the state of technology of the time, but it’s an interesting “what-if” to consider. Anyway, Google clearly has the wealth and power to withstand anything any other company (or arguably any group of companies) might throw at them, so they are in a position to continue the move Netscape started — a Web-based OS with full-featured apps available from anywhere.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Chromebook/Chrome OS wouldn’t be nearly as possible if it could only browse the Web. Its success is largely due to Google fostering the growth of Web-based apps for the platform. And I find it interesting that the dream to do this was first posited by the same people who invented the graphical browser. That’s not to give major credit to Google — after all, “Real artists ship.”

    • Tom C. March 31, 2014 at 1:26 PM #

      Sorry, that third sentence should have read, “…but didn’t have enough wealth and power…”

    • Tom C. March 31, 2014 at 1:28 PM #

      Sorry, one more correction: the last sentence should read, “That’s not to fail to give major credit…”

  3. Dave April 24, 2017 at 2:12 PM #

    Jeff Nelson is the best

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