Google Chrome OS: The Other Shoe Drops
Wednesday, July 08, 2009 at 11:19 PM EDT
Yesterday evening, on the Official Google Blog, Google ended a long period of speculation by announcing the development of the Google Chrome Operating System [Chrome OS]. It has been suggested many times that this is a step Google was considering; the release of the Chrome browser and the Android operating system for mobile devices added fuel to the fire.
Google, as a company, makes its money by selling advertising on the Web, and thus has a clear interest in increasing the use of the Web, and the number of people using it. The newly-announced Chrome OS fits right into that framework:
The Chrome OS will initially be available on netbooks, the small, inexpensive laptop computers that have been a big hit in the marketplace:
But it is clear that Google has larger ambitions for this project. It will run on more than one CPU architecture, and is designed to be a complete, Web-centric operating system. As the quote above mentions, it will be open source, and based on a Linux OS kernel:
For someone who uses mainly Internet, or cloud-based, applications (such as Google Mail and Docs, or Facebook), this potentially is quite an attractive proposition. Even with a full-blown graphic desktop, such as KDE or GNOME, Linux runs faster than any current version of Windows on a given machine. With a graphical interface tailored to supporting the browser, this advantage should be substantially increased, meaning that a Chrome OS PC could require considerably less in the way of hardware resources than a Windows PC, giving it a potential price advantage.
Since Microsoft is the dominant supplier of operating systems for the PC, with Windows, it’s clear that any success that Google achieves with the Chrome OS will come largely at the expense of Microsoft. Probably more important, Microsoft’s other cash cow is its PC application business, encompassing products like Microsoft Office. These applications, at present, run on conventional PCs under Windows. To the extent that users adopt the Chrome OS, Microsoft will lose customers from both its OS division and its applications division. So, if Microsoft thinks that the Chrome OS will be successful, it has a difficult choice: to eat the loss in market share, or to make its applications run on other platforms, which would probably damage its near-monopoly in PC operating systems.
Even this is not the worst bit of potential bad news for Microsoft, however. One of the keys to Microsoft’s succcess has been to encourage a companion ecosystem of third-party Windows developers. The typical user, after all, doesn’t really care about operating systems; he or she buys a computer to run applications. (It was the introduction of the VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet applications that really launched the PC market in the first place.) But Google is in a position to offer something even more seductive to developers:
In other words, if developers write for the Chrome environment, they can create a single application that can run on essentially every personal computer in the world. The idea of “write once, run everywhere” has been a goal for Internet developers for years – it is what Sun’s Java project was aimed at, for example. And, since Chrome is based on a Linux kernel, the potential range of potential hardware is staggering; a quick check of the Debian Linux “Ports” page shows that Linux is available for the following CPU architectures:
Although I grant you that it’s not that likely that someone will buy a S/390 mainframe to run Google mail, the reality is that the Linux OS kernel is available to run on all these architectures right now. (Actually, these are ports of the complete Debian environment, which includes much more than just the kernel.) Developers also have probably noticed that Apple has done quite well, with OS-X, using a somewhat similar approach: a graphical user interface built on a BSD Unix kernel. If we add to this a certain degree of disillusionment with Microsoft among developers, owing to the Vista debacle and to Microsoft’s trying to muscle in on their business (ask the anti-virus vendors), it’s possible Google might get a reasonably receptive audience.
Microsoft, of course, has a mountain of cash, and is not going to go down without a fight. But this will definitely be a challenge to them, as pointed out in the New York Times article about the announcement:
I find the timing of the announcement interesting, too. It comes at a time when Microsoft is already committed to a release timetable for the next version of Windows, Windows 7. Even if Windows 7 is a success, I think it’s unlikely that Microsoft can come up with anything to match what Google is proposing in the same sort of time frame.
It will be interesting to watch.
This article originally appeared on Rich's Random Walks.