I think a lightweight, browser-only operating system has been a long-time coming. It's the actualisation of what the network computer dream has been; albeit with the predictable concessions that the network isn't always available, and you need something resident on the machine itself to make it useful. But I was still surprised when hearing NPR lead off its morning newscast with "Google's attack on Microsoft". Is it going to displace the Microsoft Windows desktops in most companies? Is it a harbinger of a new computing model? Here is what I think we'll see happen in the next 18 to 24 months. Is Google the only one that benefits?
Google obviously benefits from having more users do more searches with Google. This is the "long tail" concept. Even if a particular ad only nets Google a fraction of a cent, with enough of those fractions, those ads create significant income. But other companies win, too. For hardware vendors, having a free operating system and browser that require minimal support, and come from a brand with a lot of consumer goodwill, is a big win. Consider how a PC OEM will feel if relieved of the support burden and associated costs (both material and to its reputation) simply to help new PC users "get started" with current operating systems. Can Google be counted on to secure its new OS?
I think so. First, there's the whole open-source-is-more-secure argument. More eyeballs on your source code theoretically means more people looking for vulnerabilities (and exploits). Google could have a leg-up overall. The leaner the operating system, the less things exist that could be compromised. Will the Chrome OS alienate Android developers?
If Android developers were under the impression Android would be as available on netbooks as readily as Windows 7, then perhaps. However, I think Google's approach here is quite simple. Forget the OS, forget apps, do everything in a browser. Android is when you need more than what a browser does. Is this different than what other vendors have been doing with various Linux distributions for netbooks or similar devices?
Yes, because it boldly attempts to exclude everything except the browser. (Although clearly it will have to have some internals, such as wireless configuration, date/time configuration and so on, all no doubt rendered through the browser). What advantages will the device user see?
Super-fast boot times: This is so long overdue. Recycling my Windows machine still takes six minutes. Recycling my Mac is much better (and I do it far less frequently), but lean manufacturing pundits would cite the time it take to restart or boot a computer as the epitome of "waste". Even cheaper netbook computers. Now an OEM needs to only worry about a nice screen, an input device of some sort (keyboard or pen or gestures), some resident memory and a robust wireless interface. There is a big form-factor play here though; smaller keyboards can be frustrating for larger hands (dare I say for grown-ups?) but as people come in all sizes, maybe it is time keyboards came in multiple sizes. Add ruggedisation, some fun colours (iPhone accessories clearly prove there is a market for that) and better battery life, and I expect we'll see Chrome OS devices for many members of the family. The key question here though is "how cheap will they get?" and what's the delta between how cheap these devices get and the next device that runs Windows or MacOS. Less bloated applications. I'm writing this with Google Docs and it is all I need. I don't need 1000 features in my word processor. I need about 10. Will the hardware requirement really be all that different?
Chrome is a great browser, but it still needs Google Gears (which it includes), which still needs local storage and you'll still want a lot of local cache for other web assets. So while the total memory footprint of the OS may be smaller and with improved boot times; you'll still need onboard memory (but it is probably safe to say at this point we can forgo a local hard drive). What are the obstacles to Google's success?
Ubiquitous wireless is still a myth. Let us also note that the data plans for the wireless carriers are still egregiously overpriced for the masses. So we will either need to see a dramatic price drop in cellular data plans, or more ubiquitous wireless, which will be great, but we will still need robust, disconnected support. Just because it will be open-sourced doesn't mean it will be great. Open source also doesn't mean many features will actually find their way back into the OS for most consumers. It does mean that OEMs will be able to extend the OS to support their own hardware, which is a double-edged sword because that can also lead to compatibility problems. I was in an airport the other day and my iPhone automatically identified there was a sign-in page for the airport wireless. It cached the required fields so every time I go back into Sky Harbor airport, the phone automatically signs me into the wireless. There's this fanaticism about usability some companies espouse that I've not seen in the general open source community. In the end, I do think this is good for web developers. They'll still be tasked with ensuring their web sites work well for all browsers (which will create opportunities for more development tools to help them), but let's just say this ... it still boggles my mind how many web sites were designed exclusively for IE. Will the Google OS appeal to Apple's customers?
I think there is a wildcard here with Apple. OSX is a stellar operating system and Apple's ability to make elegant hardware is still heads-and-shoulders above anybody else out there. As a result of the iPhone, think of how many new OSX developers there are in the past year alone. If the company was to come out with an OSX-based netbook (and I still have hopes for an Apple game console based on OSX), and you had every one of the App Store developers now writing apps for a portable netbook and/or game console (or even an evolved AppleTV), I think you'd have an unbeatable combination. Google would have to make the case that the browser experience can be just as good as the app experience, then find a way to let all of those "other apps" be cached. I think that is a big obstacle. Will it displace Windows in the Enterprise?
Not any time soon. Not enough corporate applications in most companies are web-based, and in my experience, most users still have a document-centric view of the world. They think in order to create information, the first step is to launch Microsoft Word. Microsoft has spent the better part of the past two decades ensuring people think exactly like this. It has worked feverishly to get SharePoint entrenched in every corporate account, so that extricating oneself from this "information exists in Microsoft Office documents" becomes a nearly insurmountable task. So I don't think the Chrome OS will end Windows desktops in the next few years. I think it will add to the collective total number of internet devices and drive some of the changes that may make it possible after a few years to have productivity workers exclusively use a web-based OS. I still think Google will need several evolutions of the browser and years of re-education (which Microsoft will fight tooth-and-nail) of end-users to prepare them for this switch. Some limited users and companies may be able to make the switch sooner (call centres and so on) but this will depend on hardware manufacturers providing a support model that gives companies a level of comfort when making this switch. Pinkus is a former high-level Google employee, who is now senior vice president of information technology for theUniversal Technical Institute