I come to work this morning and the intertubes are shaking with Google’s latest announcement: the coming of it’s Linux-based, web-oriented operating system for netbooks: Google Chrome OS. You’ve probably already read a lot of the other posts about the Chrome OS and know something about how it works. It’s an operating system at the core, but more importantly its a platform tuned to running web apps. It’s a clear signal from Google to pretty much every other operating system maker out there, including Microsoft and Apple, but also the Linux distribution providers like Red Hat and Canonical. The message is simple and clear; move over OS makers, the browser is the new application platform.
Though the reactions from around the web are mostly positive, there are some articles that are raising real issues. ZDNet Australia criticizes Chrome OS on the grounds that it will further fragment the Linux community (who will be contributing the kernel of the new OS) and a better solution would have been to join with Ubuntu which already has pushed Linux to new heights. A prediction from The Next Web makes the claim that Chrome OS will be “the beginning of the end for Ubuntu & co” and the real battle will be between Apple and Google, leaving everyone else in the dust. There’s also concern about the fact that Google already has a operating system for the web: Android, even though it’s only for mobile devices (though it has been ported to x86). Personally, I feel that these criticisms and fears surrounding Chrome contain the more interesting food for thought.
Chrome OS is undoubtedly going to be interesting, both in terms of technology and in terms of the market forces that it will affect. Also certain is that Google is more clearly than ever taking a swipe at Microsoft. Even though Google may have become the most powerful player in the web sphere, the desktop operating system stronghold was undoubtedly held by Microsoft. Even many of Google’s own applications (including Chrome) target Windows as the primary platform. Microsoft is still a force to be reckoned with. Windows 7 is shaping up well and they have a few tricks up their sleeve, including a new browser project: Gazelle and even a cloud-centered operating system called Midori in the works. They also have a powerful research wing which does some really interesting work and a very big budget (which is enough for them to sit things out for a few years while they make a better product). Whether or not they will actually do so is still questionable, but lets not write them off just yet.
And there is Apple. The last few years have seen Apple’s gradual re-rise to stardom starting with the beautiful new OS X and continuing today with it’s dominance of the online music store arena and the strength of the iPhone platform. Not many people seem interested in pitting Google against Apple, especially since Apple has stayed out of the mainstream operating system and netbook markets. However, when it comes to the internet, Apple has a considerable stake. The iPhone is as much a portable internet device as it is a phone. And though it has carefully stayed away from the low-cost netbook market, it’s unlikely that they’ll sit by while Google plays its hand in the portable computer market.
However Apple’s strength in the current situation probably stems directly from the closed, proprietary nature of it’s technology. Apple has a reputation for both creating and support great desktop apps. Good design has always been a hallmark of software running on a Mac and most web apps are still far for matching the polish that Apple has to offer. The user experience offered by the complete OS X operating system by virtue of the way it can tie together information across different apps is still something that web applications (even suites like Google Apps) have not matched to a large extent. I agree with the Next Web post that Apple probably has the most chance of retaining its user base as Google begins it’s foray into the operating system arena. With the iPhone they’ve shown that they’re still capable of market-shaking innovation and that will probably help them survive the coming OS wars.
One more important player in this market is Linux. Thanks in no small measure to Canonical, desktop Linux has gained some ground in the last few years. However, it’s still holding a very small piece of the desktop market. It’s a valid concern that Google’s entry into the market might eat into the Linux market share. Though it’s certainly possible, I’m not quite sure if this will come to pass. A lot will depend on how easy it is to get things working on Chrome OS besides the browser and web apps. What new webapps have to offer will also be influential. I personally have never been very hopeful of Linux’s position on the consumer desktop. It’s great for hacker-types like me, but I’m still not fully convinced if I would recommend it for everybody. In my opinion, most Linux desktop apps still lack some amount of external polish. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend Vista either. I do think that OS X is the best OS for most users. I don’t see Chrome as contributing to the ‘fragmentation’ of the Linux distribution scene because I expect it to be very different from traditional distros, but in this case, only time will tell.
So what can we expect in the months to come before and after Chrome OS hits the markets? Undoubtedly Google’s announcement will cause the other big players in the field to sit up and take notice. I think this move might consider other companies, especially Microsoft to push out web-centric products sooner than they otherwise would have. Google is clearly looking to shake things up in the near future and it would be folly not to plan to do something about it. However, it’s also worth keeping in mind that Chrome OS is still some time away and there is a lot of work to be done — Chromium works on Linux, but only just.
Before we make and declarations about drastic change in the OS market, it would be prudent to wait and watch and see what Chrome OS actually looks like when it releases. There is also the fact that Google will have to get people to actually use it and that may be easier said than done (considering the fact that most netbooks run Windows XP). Of course, as the iPhone has shown, there is room in the market for a sleek new product if it is made right. I will be interested in seeing how Chrome OS turns out, but I certainly won’t be giving up my Linux laptop or my Mac Mini anytime soon. I wish Chrome OS luck and hope to see some good ideas being implemented. As Yoda would say, ‘Begun the Chrome Wars have’, I’m not ready to pick sides just yet.