July 09, 2009

Google to Offer Chrome OS – Cloud Computing Tie-in Seems Likely

Setting aside the Mac vs. PC debate for a minute, how about Chrome OS as your next OS choice?  News.com reports that Google is moving beyond its Chrome web browser and Android smartphone operating system, and is actively developing a lightweight PC operating system based on Linux and Web standards for personal computers.  It will also be based on Google's Chrome browser.

More info is available on this earlier report at News.com - that "lower-end PCs called Netbooks from unnamed manufacturers will include it in the second half of 2010. Linux will run under the covers of the open-source project, but the applications will run on the Web itself.  In other words, Google's cloud-computing ambitions just got a lot bigger." (my emphasis added)

There is certainly a lot of buzz surrounding Netbooks and cloud computing, and tech pundits have been talking about the return to thin clients for years.  For better or worse, Netbooks have been the first real manifestation of that prediction for mainstream users, or at least the first commercially successful one.  A lot obviously depends on what Google ultimately delivers to us in Chrome OS, and the integration with their online apps.

As it is based upon Linux, I can see where Chrome OS could also end up as an alternative OS on mainstream PCs, probably set up by users in a multi-boot fashion much like Ubuntu, another Linux OS that's been designed to be more user friendly.  Given the reduced computing ability of Netbooks and the likely phasing out of Windows XP, a lightweight OS such as Chrome could be a compelling Netbook successor - if it offers the right mix of what Netbooks users are looking for.

The Netbook market is a great focus for Google for several reasons.  First, since Netbooks currently lack sufficient computing power to run heavier applications, they are best used as web clients, aligning with Google's online world and business model.

I also think Chrome OS already has too much competition on the mainstream OS front, from Microsoft, Apple, and even other Linux variations.  So far, my impressions are that I have yet to see the Android OS take off as a serious smartphone contender (especially in light of the iPhone and Palm Pre, and new BlackBerry offerings coming from RIM).  I still see the Chrome browser as somewhat of a tech curiosity rather than a mainstream browser, as most people are still using some flavor of IE or Firefox as their main browsers.  That's not to say that Chrome hasn't introduced some nice features, such as tear-away tabs and better stability resulting from improved memory management.  But it's been uniformly criticized as having too few features to compete head-on with leading browsers, an observation with which I tend to agree.

So, given the "less is more" approach of the Chrome browser, I expect the same philosophy in Chrome OS, particularly as it will be based around its browser namesake.  And which computing platforms have capitalized on and appealed to us as "less is more"?  That's right - Netbooks and cloud computing.  Thus I see Google sensing a critical opportunity in the Netbook OS market in the interim between the aging Windows XP Home and whatever is next from Microsoft.  It is an opportunity to tie together two emerging markets that are heavily steeped in the Web - Netbooks and cloud computing - in a way that Google couldn't do as effectively by relying upon others' operating systems.

Google has a long history of making great applications that are particularly easy-to-use, whether they are PC or web-based, including Google Desktop, Picasa, Google Maps, Google Earth, and Gmail.  It will be interesting to see how Google approaches their OS design, particularly with Linux as it can be daunting for non-techie users under the hood.  However, they've certainly had ample dress rehearsal with it in developing the Linux-based Android OS for smartphones.

While it certainly remains to be seen whether Chrome OS will appeal beyond consumers to significant business use, it's always nice to have options, especially in these emerging tech markets where the lines of traditional computing tasks and collaboration tools are being blurred almost daily to generate more value to us, the end users.  From current reports, look for Chrome OS being available on Netbooks in the latter half of 2010.

[7.21.09 Update: eWeek has a thought-provoking slideshow, "10 Concerns About Google Chrome OS", pointing out such interesting tidbits such as Google is not a platform vendor but a Web app developer, and wondering whether any Linux-based OS will ever catch on with consumers as a comfortable OS.  My point above about Chrome OS having too much competition on the mainstream OS front was also mentioned.]

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard