Chrome OS: 3 reasons it matters, 4 reasons it's irrelevant

Google has finally announced its long-expected operating system, the Chrome OS. Here's what we know about it, plus my take on both why it matters and why it could turn out to be irrelevant.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief on

No one is surprised Google announced last week that it is building an operating system. It's been one of the worst kept secrets in the technology world that Google has long desired to build an OS to take a shot at the Microsoft Windows monopoly. In the wake of the announcement, Google CEO Eric Schmidt even admitted that Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have wanted to build a Web browser and operating system for years, but Schmidt initially opposed the idea and only recently gave in.

Google's idea is to essentially create a thin client operating system for consumers. This is not going to have a big impact on IT departments and businesses, many of which are experimenting with Windows-based thin client solutions such as VDI. However, IT pros should understand Chrome OS because you can be sure some workers will try to bring it into the business.

Thus, let's take a look at the few details we know about the Chrome OS at this point, and then look at the reasons why it will matter and the reasons why it may turn out to be virtually irrelevant.

Here's what we know

  • It will run with a Linux kernel as its base
  • It will boot directly into the Chrome Web browser
  • It will be aimed primarily at netbooks
  • It will run on both x86 and ARM processors
  • It will not be designed to have local storage; all data will be stored in the cloud
  • Google will not entice developers to build software to run on the Chrome OS; instead, they want them to build Web apps that will run on any standards-based browser
  • The three most important features will be "speed, simplicity and security," according to Google
  • Google will release the software to the open source community before the end of 2009
  • Announced Chrome OS hardware partners: Acer, Adobe, ASUS, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Toshiba.
  • Netbooks running Chrome OS will be available in the second half of 2010

This is Google's official explanation of the problems that it is trying to solve with Chrome OS:

People want to get to their email instantly, without wasting time waiting for their computers to boot and browsers to start up. They want their computers to always run as fast as when they first bought them. They want their data to be accessible to them wherever they are and not have to worry about losing their computer or forgetting to back up files. Even more importantly, they don't want to spend hours configuring their computers to work with every new piece of hardware, or have to worry about constant software updates. And any time our users have a better computing experience, Google benefits as well by having happier users who are more likely to spend time on the Internet.

Three reasons why it matters

3. Because Windows needs more competition Nearly two decades after Microsoft Windows conquered the PC, very few real challenges have been mounted against its dominance. Long-time rival Apple Macintosh has recently had a resurgence, but it's still hovering at less than 10% of the total market. This market is ripe for innovation and a new competitor. In many quarters, Windows fatigue has set in, especially in the notoriously price-conscious consumer market and in light of the Vista debacle. The virus, spyware, and security troubles of Windows are its biggest weaknesses and Google is wise to target those soft spots with Chrome OS.

2. Because Chrome OS will be cheap Google has confirmed that the Chrome OS will be open source and will not have any licensing fees. That will enable Chrome OS-based netbooks to be cheaper than both Windows-based netbooks and ARM-based smartbooks from Qualcomm. Plus, once we start talking about nettops, it's entirely possible that we could see a $100 PC (without monitor) running the Chrome OS.

1. Because it's from Google Google is the 800-pound gorilla of the Internet. Because of its brand strength and star power, it's always a big deal when Google enters new markets. Nothing that Google does will go unnoticed or fail simply because it didn't get enough exposure.

Four reasons why it's virtually irrelevant

4. It's running Linux So is 2010 going to be the year of Linux on the desktop since Chrome OS is based on Linux? Every year for the past decade was supposed to be "The Year of Linux on the Desktop." It hasn't happened and it's not because it was an idea ahead of its time or it needed a stronger champion. The mass market has rejected Linux on the desktop. Linux is nothing more (or less) than a niche OS loved by a loyal group of highly-technical users. Even Google can't change that, unless it's prepared to write Linux device drivers for all of the world's printers, digital cameras, keyboards, and mice.

3. It's too late By the time Chrome OS is released, Windows 7 will be everywhere (at least in the consumer market) and Mac OS X will be faster and simpler with the release of Snow Leopard. If Google really wanted to make a powerful entrance into the OS market, the time to do it would have been mid-2007 when it was obvious that Windows Vista was a failure and it would take Microsoft a couple years to fix it. The opportunity for an OS to make a major impact on the PC market has passed. The OS just isn't that important anymore. Windows and Mac both do a pretty good job of making the OS get out of the way as quickly and easily as possible. Chrome OS probably won't be able to do that because it will start out with massive device driver incompatibilities with PC accessories.

2. Google hasn't proven it can build an OS Google hasn't exactly knocked anyone's socks off with Android, its mobile OS. While Android has potential and still has time to develop, it feels like beta software in a market that demands greater "finish" and attention to detail (see iPhone and Palm Pre). Plus, Android itself was originally touted to be a netbook OS. Therefore, the release of Chrome OS is a de facto indictment against Android, despite the fact that Google executives have tried to downplay it. Maybe Google has realized that the Java software sitting on top of a Linux codebase in Android would have severe performance limitations on a PC. Whatever the case may be, the fact that Google will have overlapping netbook operating systems does not inspire a lot of confidence that Google knows what it's doing in the OS market or has a sound strategy.

1. It's limited to netbooks So here's the skinny on netbooks. They have two great features: They are small and cheap. They also have two big drawbacks: They are terrible and a lot of consumers regret buying them (verified by a recent NPD survey). The consumer backlash against netbooks has already begun and by the time we see Chrome OS netbooks from Google's hardware partners in the second half of 2010, the netbook phenomenon will either have retreated into the background or morphed into something better. And then Google will have to scramble to make Chrome OS available on a wider variety of notebook computers, as well as on nettops.

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