74% of the world, Google’s Chrome OS is not for you

Google made a huge splash when it announced its plans for the Chrome operating system, a web-centric OS where essentially everything is run through a web browser. One great promise of Google’s Chrome OS is the arrival of low-cost, lightweight hardware, since most of the storage and other data handling is done in the cloud. Perhaps that 100-dollar computer will finally become a reality.

But there is a problem. A rather big one. The strength of the Chrome OS, that it makes maximum use of online resources, also limits its potential adoption. To have any real use of the OS you need a decent Internet connection, and that has some significant implications we need to look at.

5 billion without Internet access

Before we even discuss broadband, let us first get one piece of statistic out in the open: 74% of the world population doesn’t have Internet access. At all.

In other words, 5 billion of the world’s 6.8 billion people will have little use for Google’s Chrome OS because they don’t have Internet access.

This is the current Internet penetration shown by region:

  • Africa: 6.8%
  • Asia: 19.4%
  • Europe: 52%
  • North America: 74.2%
  • South America and Caribbean: 30.5%
  • Australia and Oceania: 60.4%
  • Middle East: 28.3%

Google’s Chrome OS is a great idea. Put as much as possible into the cloud, and keep the physical device as a “thin client” to access this functionality. However, this great depence on Internet connectivity has left the OS virtually useless for the vast majority of the world population, especially those who would have benefited the most from a low-cost, lightweight computer.

Now that a $100 computer is actually starting to look plausible, it’s ironic that those in true need of one won’t be able to use it. It will remain a luxury item, a secondary computer to those better off.

An even bleaker outlook: broadband

The numbers so far have been about Internet access, any kind, but to properly use a Web OS like the Chrome OS, you really need a broadband connection. This disqualifies an even larger percentage of the population. The mere thought of downloading and uploading documents and other data over an old dial-up connection makes us shiver.

So how common is broadband? Not as common as you might expect. For example, in the United States, 74.1% of the population has Internet access, but as of 2008, only 57% were accessing the Internet over a broadband connection. You could say that this makes Chrome OS unusable to 43% of the US population.

Internet penetration and broadband Internet penetration
Country Internet penetration (total) Broadband Internet penetration
United States 74.1% 57%
Canada 74.9% 65%
United Kingdom 76.4% 55%
Australia 80.1% 59%
France 69.3% 54%
Spain 71.8% 49%
Germany 65.9% 47%
Sweden 89.2% 54%
Japan 75.5% 55%

These countries are just a few examples to give you an idea of what the broadband penetration tends to look like. More examples can be found on ITIF’s homepage.

And remember that “broadband” isn’t always very good either. It’s usually defined as 256 kbps and up, and that lower spectrum of the broadband definition is hardly a performance monster. Downloading just one megabyte over a 256 kpbs connection takes more than 30 seconds even under ideal circumstances. Many web pages are larger than that.

So even among those who by definition have broadband Internet access, many will have far from an ideal experience of Chrome OS.

Final thoughts (and a happy ending?)

Don’t get us wrong, we at Pingdom like the concept behind Google’s Chrome OS. It’s just that we haven’t seen anyone mention this whole dilemma, so we wanted to shine some light on the actual implications of an OS that is virtually useless without Internet access.

That said, we’d like to end on an optimistic note. The idea behind the Chrome OS does hold a lot of promise. In a sense it’s a throwback to the old days of mainframes and terminals, where computing resources and storage are centralized and accessible by modest hardware on the user end. As Internet penetration spreads, more and more people will be able to benefit from this often cost-saving model where they don’t have to spend so much on hardware.

Data sources:
Broadband penetration data from ITIF (2008).
Internet penetration data from Internet World Stats (2009).

16 comments

  1. Criticizing Google for this is kinda like getting mad at beer manufacturers because nobody under 21 can drink legally.

    I don’t know if that was your intent, but the headline sorta reads that way.

    Besides, Chrome is about being ready for what’s coming up, not necessarily about what’s here today.

    1. @Brian: Thanks for commenting. Interesting analogy. It’s not really a critique (which I thought we made clear at the bottom of the article). The post is meant to shine a light on an aspect of the Chrome OS that no one seems to be discussing at all or even think about (the consequences of an Internet-dependent device). And yes, of course these are early days and Google is positioning itself for things to come (whatever its plans are).

      Also, you have to admire the irony that the very thing that (finally) makes it possible to make a really cheap computer is also what prevents the people most in need of those cheap computers to own one. This is not Google’s fault. It’s just an observation.

  2. I guess the solution, then, would be to use the platform Chrome OS is based on, Ubuntu Linux. There’s nothing special about Chrome, it’s just a Linux distro highly customized to almost exclusively use web apps. If you’re like 74% of the world, just use Linux for your cheap computers…problem solved.

  3. Oh, and recall that using centralized computing resources & storage isn’t outdated, it’s just moved a few notches up the scale. If you’re running a climate simulation or something that’s using a couple hundred thousand cores, you’re going to be using a centralized supercomputer and storage, since you can’t afford a petaflop system or petabytes of storage yourself. I see no reason why taking that same model and applying it to regular systems is a “throwback”.

  4. What percentage of the world doesn’t have access to a computer, never mind the Internet?
    What percentage of the world doesn’t have reliable electricity?

    What percentage of the world is starving and too busy trying to stay alive to care about a choice in computer operating systems?

    My questions and points are as feeble as “74% of the world, Google’s Chrome OS is not for you.” I suggest that if you want to make a better point, with a constructive outcome, that you research the percentage of those 74% who are in a position to make a digital choice; not starving, reliable power source, not being persecuted, have homes, reasonable infrastructure around them for sustained computerisation etc.

    A “cheap computer” isn’t even a consideration for many people in the world. Even for those who are in that market the question may no longer be answered by a netbook but by a mobile phone with a 2.5″ screen (see India, see parts of Africa, see China.)

    1. @Paul M. Watson: Of course there are plenty of human needs that have higher priority. I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise. This article isn’t about that, though. It’s about the implications of an OS that is totally reliant on an Internet connection, and a good one at that. It’s simply an observation.

      Even of those who could afford a 100-dollar computer, a huge portion won’t have any use of one based on Chrome OS because they won’t have a decent Internet connection. That’s the point: constructive or not, it’s a fact. This even holds true for the United States, where roughly half the population won’t be able to take advantage of Chrome OS devices even if they could afford one.

      We’re not blaming Google or trying to point fingers, we’re simply stating facts.

      Good point about mobile phones.

  5. I fully agree with you it is just an observation and not a run down on Google.May be Google will have to look for the alternative of making Chrome have the additional feature of working off line too.

  6. Well, Pingdom, it looks like you’re getting a lot of criticism on this article!

    I think you’ve made some interesting points here for sure. It was a good read.

    @Chrome OS: I think you have some good possibilities. Chrome will be ideal for the backpacking traveler who is short on cash. It will take full advantage of the developing netbook trend. It is a great new take on computing; let’s just hope it goes well!

    Looking forward to those 100$ computers!

  7. I won;t say Chrome OS is highly unnecessary but if Google is wise they would not depend on it because this article makes sense that those that may critically need cheap computers also are the ones that cannot afford the internet for one reason or another (not that its Google’s fault, its just reality), so it will not really gain grounds anyway. Even in the cloud Google’s services do not compare to cloud services by major players like Microsoft who currently hold majority stake in the enterprise. If Google is wise, they would just also integrate their cloud-based services into Chrome browser so that anyone who has it on their computers regardless the platform can simply subscribe to their services. Also no matter how cloud-based services take off, users still want control over their data and will obviously still want at least some on their computer anyway besides the fact that most people will not subscribe for one reason or the other financial or otherwise so there is no way cloud computing will ever over-ride what the current trend is. I see Microsoft taking this route because MS Office 2010 already ties into Microsoft’s BPOS and Office Web Apps is now tied into their cloud services and the slew of 2010 products so if you want desktop app integration or want to fully work on your browser or both you are good to go in any case. Although on the personal cloud services front, neither of them has a central landing page for users to access all available services.

  8. It seems allot of Google staffs read this topic. I think the article points a concern which is a reality.

    I love the Chrome idea, and actually I always said Internet will be like that in some years, just not now, and I dont think it will come in a shape like OS Chrome either. I think it will come in a shape of Citrix xenApp where people will use the same desktop they use today but remotely on a datacenter.

    But there is one big problem with this concept. Hardware vendors will make 0 profits except from selling servers. Whats the point of spending some $$$ on hardware if you cant use it?

    So by that sense, its absolutely a waste of money to spend 300$ on a netbook running Chrome since you can install Linux and run everything Chrome can and even use it offline. Chrome OS will not work like they are trying to implement it currently. It will only run if its on a cheap or even free thin client which you can trow away after using it. The minute you can use a little bit of local hardware why dont use it? Installing Chrome OS on a current netbook is rendering it completely useless if you unplug it. Specially because there are allot of things you can do offline running a light linux version on it. If im left in the middle of the desert at least I can write my last memories with it.

  9. Brian, they cant legally drink but they can still drink!!!
    That analogy cannot be compared. Most teenagers under 21 still drink and they can if they absolutely want too in their homes. If you are without Internet in a third world countrie without a single point of access miles and miles away you cant go online even if you want too.
    The solution would be if each Chrome OS device would have a satellite Internet connection, unless that, the article points a real concern. Anyone that has traveled the world will know how hard it is to find an Internet connection in some countries, and even if you find one, even in Europe, in some Airports, you have to pay for the Wifi hotspot.

  10. I already like the idea. Look how much smartphones are getting popular. But the actual hard target for google would be corporations and their current model which is based on Microsoft technology. Google historically goes slowly. I don’t know why they rushed on gmail Buzz. That is their lesson to learn.

  11. Why all the whining? Most of the world still can’t get dial up so I see your argument here completely invalid. If they have dial up for any reason then they are probably rarely on the Internet doing any hard core computing or gaming. If your system sucks, it sucks and because some Eskimo in the middle of the Arctic Circle can’t get broadband doesn’t mean the parts of the world where this all really matters (e.g., the places where fast computers and fast Internet does exist) shouldn’t be able to experience better computing. I’m all for $100.00 computers in my neck of the woods, I could care less about whether the rest of the world can’t afford it or not, just because they live in remote areas doesn’t mean I should have to suffer with Microsoft’s overly expensive B.S. Bring it on Google!

  12. Love Google, got the Nexus One from launch, I am a Google fan boy! Anyway, Chrome OS, what a let down, it wasn’t compatible with my “compatible” wireless chipset so I couldnt see its potential and it was way over complicated to work out how to get it working for me (your slightly above average joe).

    I can see Chrome OS working excellently for bespoke systems such as tablet devices but its never going to be a Windows replacement in this stage. I’m sure (I hope) Google are aware of this.

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