Chrome on Windows 8 is like Netscape's vision back in 1995

Netscape creator Marc Andreessen, now a successful venture capitalist, speaks at a tech conference in 2012. Credit: Fortune Live Media via Flickr Creative Commons

This surely isn’t the way Microsoft hoped people would finally get interested in using modern UI apps in Windows 8.

Google’s latest developer version of Chrome runs like a modern UI app in Windows 8. But we’re not talking the Chrome browser, which is already available for Windows 8 in desktop mode. This is the full Chrome OS, running like a modern UI app in Windows 8.

That means Windows 8 users can essentially choose to run either Windows or the Chrome OS on their machines.

The big question is, why would you want to run Chrome OS on your brand new Windows 8 machine? The best answer is apps.

Microsoft has been criticized for struggling to attract great new apps as part of its new app store model in Windows 8. It hasn’t even managed to transition its own apps, like Word and Excel, to the modern UI.

But if Google has great apps, including some that really take advantage of touch screens, it might convince people to try using Chrome OS on their Windows 8 machines.

Google has done far better than Microsoft (albeit over a longer period) of creating a new app ecosystem from scratch. Its Android app store dwarfs Microsoft’s Windows Phone store. But it's hard to find a reliable number of how many apps are available for Chrome, and like Android, it suffers from a host of low-quality and rip-off apps. Still, it’s Google, and so has a good chance of attracting cutting-edge apps for Chrome.

This is also an easy way to let people try out the Chrome OS without taking the plunge and actually buying a Chromebook.

One big caveat is that we’re talking about a developer version of Chrome for Windows, so it’s possible Google won’t finish it off and release it to the public. Also, there are still shortcomings to running apps in a browser compared to natively. And with Windows 8.1, users can boot to the desktop, giving them even less reason to use modern UI style apps.

But if Google can overcome those shortcomings, it’s easy to think that Marc Andreessen, back in his Netscape days, was just a bit too early for his time. Around 1995 he started quipping that Netscape would turn Windows into a “poorly debugged set of device drivers,” meaning that browsers and web apps running on top of Windows would replace most of the apps and features of Windows itself. Twenty years later, Google may be trying to prove that out once again.

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