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Google Chrome OS: The unnecessary operating system

September 1, 2009

There has been an amazing amount of hype about Chrome, Google’s upcoming operating system. Before I get into this column let’s look at what Google says Chrome is:

Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks. Later this year we will open-source its code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010. Because we’re already talking to partners about the project, and we’ll soon be working with the open source community, we wanted to share our vision now so everyone understands what we are trying to achieve.

Google Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips and we are working with multiple OEMs to bring a number of netbooks to market next year. The software architecture is simple — Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel. For application developers, the web is the platform. All web-based applications will automatically work and new applications can be written using your favorite web technologies. And of course, these apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux thereby giving developers the largest user base of any platform

Frankly, I’ve found it more than a little amusing to read some of the coverage of it and the comments posted by various readers on different sites. A lot of people seem to think that Chrome means the end of Microsoft is at hand and that Google will finally be able to destroy Microsoft’s office application and operating system monopolies.

But the truth about Chrome OS is a lot less rosy than the hype and I’ll tell you why in this column.

An alleged screenshot of Google's Chrome OS. No way to know if it's real or not.

An alleged screenshot of Google’s Chrome OS. No way to know if it’s real or not.

Who Cares About Netbooks?
Since Google is initially aiming Chrome at netbooks it’s important to note that not everybody uses them or has any interest in them. I have never owned a netbook and I never will. I simply have no use for it. When I’m out and about I have my iPhone with me and I own a Macbook Pro for when I need to travel. The Macbook Pro has VMWare, Parallels and VirtualBox on it so I can run Linux (and even Windows when I want to be a masochist) as well as Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

No netbook has ever met my needs and I don’t think any ever will. So I’d never buy one and I suspect there are a lot of other people out there who want nothing to do with netbooks. Starting with netbooks might be a big mistake on Google’s part since it essentially limits the number of people exposed to Chrome and limits Chrome to being stuck initially in the netbook ghetto.

And let’s not ignore the fact that a lot of netbooks run Windows XP already. I’ll talk more about Windows later in this column but, suffice to say, it won’t be easy to get people currently using Windows to switch to Chrome OS.

I may be totally wrong on the netbook thing as a whole though since a fair number of people seem to like them. But I never will.

Yet Another Linux Distribution?
The other problem with Chrome is that it is essentially trying to fulfill a need that has already been met by other products.

If you aren’t familiar with Linux then you might not be aware of how many desktop Linux distributions are already available. There’s quite a lot of them and some of them run fine on netbooks as well as regular desktops, laptops, portable devices, etc. In the world of Linux choice is king and there is no lack of choices. Distros abound with new ones being made and with some of them even being remastered into funky and weird choices like Ubuntu Satanic Edition and Hannah Montana Linux.

Take a minute and visit Distrowatch and you’ll quickly notice that there’s a Linux distribution for almost every conceivable need. Google is very, very late to this party and I have to wonder why it has taken them so long to get here. Other distributions already have rabid followings and it remains to be seen if Google is going to be able to pry a significant number of people away from them.

Do we really need a Linux distribution from Google? I understand that they are aiming Chrome (eventually) at a larger market than desktop Linux users but I have to wonder what they will do differently that will make Chrome be so compelling that folks currently using a different Linux distro will switch.

With great distros like Linux Mint who needs Googles Chrome OS?

With great distros like Linux Mint who needs Google’s Chrome OS?

Great Desktop & Netbook Linux Distros
As I’ve noted in various reviews over on my Desktop Linux Reviews blog, there are a lot of good desktop Linux distributions out there. Here’s a list of a few of them in case you aren’t familiar with them. It’ll give you an idea of why Chrome really isn’t necessary.

Linux Mint

And that’s really just a very small sample of what’s available. There’s lots and lots of other distributions. So I have to wonder exactly what Google will bring to the party that will make Google Chrome OS so much more attractive than existing distributions. It had better be more than some cool looking Google icons and that sort of thing. Google will have to produce some real value in order for Google Chrome OS to be taken seriously.

I’ll be doing a review of Chrome OS on DLR as soon as it’s available and it will be very interesting to see what it has to offer and how that relates to existing Linux distributions.

And let’s not forget that Linux is already well represented in the netbook space too. Companies like Intel, Novell, Canonical and others are already involved with putting Linux on netbooks. There’s even a version of Ubuntu specially designed for netbooks:

Ubuntu Netbook Remix is optimised to run on a new category of affordable Internet-centric devices called netbooks. It includes a new consumer-friendly interface that allows users to quickly and easily get on-line and use their favourite applications. This interface is optimised for a retail sales environment.

Ubuntu has created a special version of its distro just for netbooks.

At this point I’m quite skeptical about it’s chances to even compete with existing Linux distributions nevermind actually taking on Windows. Contrary to what Google might think, other Linux distro makers are not going to simply rollover for Chrome OS and allow it to take their market share. They’re going to keep rolling out versions of their own distros and Google is going to have to compete with them head-on whether it’s on the desktop or on netbooks or on other devices.

What About Windows Users?
Let’s forget about desktop Linux users for a moment since we number comparatively few compared to Windows users. How exactly is Google planning on attracting Windows users to Chrome? Based on what I’ve read about it it doesn’t come across as a must-have if I were a Windows user. What exactly is going to pry Windows users away from the comfort of their current operating system? Web apps? Um…those can certainly be accessed without Chrome by any Linux, Windows or Mac OS X user.

I just don’t see how Chrome is going to move people away from Windows. It doesn’t seem to have anything particularly attractive to offer beyond the “coolness” of the Google name and that’s not going to cut it. People tend to get used to how their operating system does things and asking them to change to something new can be quite traumatic and difficult not to mention confusing.

I’ve seen quite a few people try to make the leap from Windows to Linux and it usually takes some time for them to get used to their new operating system and find their way around in terms of replacing their Windows applications and moving on to native Linux apps. There’s definitely a certain amount of effort involved that the user has to put forward and I’m not sure how Chrome is really going to have enough appeal to facilitate a move away from Windows.

Is Windows in real danger from Google's Chrome OS?

Is Windows in real danger from Google’s Chrome OS?

The Problem With Web Apps
Obviously one of the big selling points of Google Chrome OS will be Google’s own web apps and web apps in general. Google’s web products are pretty darn popular for the most part. But there’s a danger in relying heavily on web apps too. Remember when Apple tried to push browser based iPhone apps as an alternative to native iPhone apps? Developers weren’t happy at all and neither were iPhone users. Everybody wanted apps that were native to the iPhone and that didn’t need to be connected to a network to run.

Don’t get me wrong, web apps have their place and some are incredibly useful. But web apps alone are simply not enough for most people. We need a blend of apps that run locally and that run from the cloud. If Google foolishly relies on web apps too much they may find that their operating system simply won’t meet the needs of most users. And if all their operating system exists for is to promote Google’s own web products then that may also turn off a lot of people who don’t want to have the Google brand shoved into their face in an obnoxious way.

Google has to tread carefully here and find a balance between incorporating web apps without making Chrome OS too dependent on them. It will be very interesting to see if they are able to achieve this.

The Trust Factor: How Much Do You Trust Google?
Google made itself famous with its “do no evil” motto but over the years it has been criticized for becoming a potential threat to user privacy. Google has tried to respond positively to this but the question remains: How much do you trust Google? Do you trust them enough to not only use their web services but to also use their operating system. How much of your personal information do you want one company to have?

Now please note that I’m not bashing Google here at all. I use Gmail and other Google services and this blog and my others use Google Adsense to serve ads. So I have no problems using Google’s products and services. They’ve done well by me in terms of providing value in my own life and also in generating some revenue from the stuff I write.

But do I really want to use a Google operating system? Am I really that enamored with Google that I want to take it that far? I suppose it’s a question each of us will have to ask ourselves when Chrome is finally available. I suspect there will be more than a few people who say no to Chrome simply because they don’t trust Google for whatever reason.

How will Chrome OS compete with freaky distros like Hannah Montana Linux?

How will Chrome OS compete with freaky distros like Hannah Montana Linux?

Final Thoughts
On a general level I think more competition is a good thing particularly when it holds Microsoft’s feet to the fire. They have always desperately needed other companies to compete with them in order for them to produce better products. Without strong competition Microsoft tends to simply stagnate and put out less than stellar products.

When Microsoft had it highest desktop market share and highest browser market share it sat on its lead for the most part and didn’t go out of its way to produce better products. Thanks to competition from Firefox, Safari and Opera (and to a much lesser extent Google’s Chrome browser) in the browser arena, Microsoft has had to improve Internet Explorer. And the failure of Windows Vista to keep up with Linux and Mac OS X has forced Microsoft into producing an arguably better product in Windows 7.

But I can’t help but think that Google’s Chrome OS simply isn’t necessary to any of this at this point. Had they come out with it five years ago then perhaps it would have made a real difference. But Linux and Mac OS X are already doing a good job in forcing Microsoft to compete in order to protect it’s operating system dominance. So what do we need Google’s Chrome OS for? Not much that I can see.

Google’s Chrome OS simply isn’t necessary.

What’s your take on Google’s Chrome OS? Will you be using it? Do you trust Google? Tell me in the comments below.


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14 Responses to Google Chrome OS: The unnecessary operating system

  1. PID Controller on December 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    there are many different operating systems but of course i would still prefer to use linux for stability `,~

  2. smeezekitty on December 14, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    I will not use it.
    I do spend significant time offline and I do not trust cloud computing.
    Also Google has a habit of changing things without caring what the general population thinks of it.
    The only Google services I use is Google search and Youtube and my patentice is getting thin.
    Also netbooks are useless being weak and no CD-ROM drive.

  3. Randy on December 10, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    I wont be using it. Windows 7 is the lesser or two evils. My trust in cloud computing was lost when I learned what Facebook does with our personal information and keeps on doing – Intellus for example. Now personal information can be obtained easily by any identity thief that wants it. I don’t think that just because some faceless company says “trust us” that you should. After all Google does in fact does invade your privacy every time you use their search engine so why would this OS thing be different. Just my opinion.

  4. Mason on July 2, 2010 at 10:49 am

    You do make a lot of good points and ask a lot of good questions. Although you failed to mention one of the reasons why Google said they were making ChromeOS in the first place. How many of us, as soon as the OS loads, simply load up the web browser? How much time do we spend on the web browser compared to using other facets of our computers? I probably spend 70% of my time on the browser and about 30% of my time programming (hobbyist). The mere fact of the matter is that the computer user has been slowly moving more and more towards a web-centric experience.

    Thanks for the article.

  5. Zak Fisher on May 20, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    For me, the best operating system is Linux because it rarely hangs.-,.

  6. Lewis Robinson on April 27, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    I have tried using Chrome OS in one of my desktop PC’s, the overall performance is above average to excellent “

  7. vamsi on September 4, 2009 at 1:43 am

    There already is the ubuntu netbook remix which is a very good OS for a netbook. For chromeos to be successful, a lot is needed of it.

  8. Chris on September 2, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    I agree with your final thoughts regarding competition leading to better products and I understand that Mac and Linux have been doing just that.

    I think what this comes down to is a question of choice. It’s just one more choice. I have started using Chrome, Gmail, Calendar, etc. and I love their ease-of-use. Also, Google is the first company I’ve seen to give simple, easy instructions ANY time I’m not sure how to get something done (at this point I am obliged to note that I have always been a Windows user, unsatisfied, and I’ve been thirsting for simplicity and direct answers)

    I’m excited to see what Google offers with Wave and Voice, and now Chrome OS. Quite simply, I’d like to see what they’re packing. And if I like it, I’ll use it. Who cares if it’s necessary?

  9. Navigateur on September 2, 2009 at 4:34 am

    Yeah the news articles and reports that I saw were way over-hyped about Google Chrome OS. They said it might give windows a “run for their money”, and made me think that it was a brand new PC desktop OS developed from the ground up. I wish.

    It’s optimised for web apps, and, if I’m not mistaken, the “native apps” need to be developed using existing web platforms i.e. javascript, flash, java applet, silverlight etc. This may not be a bad thing, since that means any native-only apps can be more easily converted to web apps in the future. But is there enough technology out there (I mean existing software components) on these platforms (javascript, silverlight, etc.) for games and all the other apps we’re used to on our PCs? Only when that time comes, can Chrome OS be able to “take over” from Windows.


  10. Jim March on September 2, 2009 at 3:36 am

    There’s several things Google could do right.

    First, they have a LOT of experience with optimized disk access – more than almost anybody on the planet, esp. since it’s all Linux experience. IF they can port even a portion of that to the desktop, they could bring a pretty severe speed boost to the table.

    Next, something none of the distros have done yet (Ubuntu is in the early planning stages) is to do more OS-level (plus user interface level) integration with WINE. WINE is the most memory-efficient way to run Windows apps underneath Linux…much moreso than virtualization as you don’t have dual full OS stacks. It’s very compatible with netbook-class horsepower. Give people a way to run familiar Windows apps underneath Linux and get both a speed boost and a total dodge from Windows malware and yeah, people will eat that up. And WINE has become pretty damn solid of late.

    Google has an advantage in starting this late: they can steal all the best ideas of a dozen-plus distros and NOT use what fails. Look at, say, OpenSuse: great distro except stuck (for historical reasons) with a package manager that blows chunks. Red Hat/Fedora too, to a lesser degree. Debian’s apt-get/Synaptic stack is the way to go.

    Then put some real thought into the user interface starting with something compact and customizable like LXDE, Enlightenment or even OpenBox with tweaks and they could really be onto something.

  11. Rodrigo on September 1, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    I believe it is too soon to say what the Chrome OS will be (necessary or not; good or not; …)
    There isn’t simply not enough information out there that we can use.
    But I do believe this is a good thing, even if it turns out to be a total failure. Whether people admit it or not, the google name has a lot of influence in people’s minds (it’s a fact: they’re everywhere on the web, whether we’re talking about their enourmously popular search engine or ads, they’re everywhere). We don’t see this kind of buzz about new versions of Ubuntu or the launch of any Linux distribution. And all google had to do was announce this OS in their blog (please correct me if I’m wrong here, but the advertising and buzz is made by people and not google, even by saying this OS won’t be necessary, you’re advertising it). This will make people see that there are free and (in most cases, for example, for gamers, depending on which games they play, this might not be true, unfortunately) better alternatives to using windows. And if the Chrome OS is a total failure, people will also see the word Linux written there, and research it.
    About the OS itself, I believe that it can be something great or a total failure.
    The google chrome browser, in my opinion, was an innovative piece of software, because it’s architecture is fundamentally different from other browsers, and it has a clean, simple and easy to use interface. I just don’t use it has my only browser because it doesn’t have a complete version for Linux yet and I still use som add-ons and greasemonkey scripts on firefox.
    If google literally just builds a browser on top of the Linux kernel, then, in my opinion, it won’t be any good. As you mentioned, and I agree, people want and use native apps, and although internet apps are getting popular, they aren’t yet mature enough to totally replace a desktop (maybe someday they will be), so if google wants to do a decent OS, it should, in my opinion, mix both things: internet apps with native apps (and that’s what I think they’ll do … unless they want to launch a basically doomed software). However, if they can build an OS that can integrate web and native apps well, show an appealing, simple and easy to use design and maintain the performance they promiss, I think it’s an operating system that’s worth a while checking out. And I do believe that wouldn’t be just another linux Distribution, because it targets a market segment that is still little in alternatives: the netbooks. Although you mention there are a already some distributions that explore it, essentially, they’re all simillar, because they’re based on moblin, from intel. I am the owner of a netbook, and I think the web experience could be improved. Right now I’m using moblin v2 beta, and I really like it, because it performs very well, although it still has many bugs, and I believe it is very much limited (and I haven’t found any mention of removing many of those limitations on their website). Before this I used Ubuntu Netbook Remix. Both of these distributions still don’t fully satisfy me in internet browsing, because although it is supportable, many times it’s a slow experience, especially with sites rich with javascript and flash (which shouldn’t happen with a device focused on navigating on the web). If Chrome OS can change that, without presenting limitations to configuring the OS, and without complicating it too much, I think it has the potential to present something new to the OS market.
    Ultimately, we’ll just have to wait and see what it’ll turn out.

  12. Jason Sebring on September 1, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    The web has trended toward a more rich experience and continues to do so. The most recent HTML 5 specification allows the web to do more things on the client side such as 3d graphics and local database storage natively. There is a point where we meet in the middle where native OS functionality and web-based technology are hard to distinguish. The hardware demands of the web are much less compared with running a bulky OS like Vista. Windows and Intel in the past have always propelled upgrading hardware to meet new OS demands in a self-perpetuating cycle to drive profits. As the lines between OS and web blur further in terms of functionality, the value of the OS goes away and it just doesn’t matter what OS you use at that point when using a standards capable browser. In the case of the Chrome OS, it is designed specifically for the web and embraces web standards, is light weight and has the backing of a multi-billion dollar company that became that way because of their dominance in the web. This is not comparable to anything that has come before with that in mind.

  13. Brian Masinick on September 1, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Jim, I am not enamored with the Google name, and I do not devote myself exclusively to using their products and tools, but I do include them among the mix of the things that I use. What will be interesting for me to watch is to see if Google adds anything at all interesting to the equation when it produces a small operating system with integrated Web based applications. Will this system provide ONLY Web based applications? Will it do anything innovative, in terms of fast boot times (such as boot to a screen in under five seconds)? Will it add anything creative or innovative that makes it easier to connect to a network, regardless of where you are?

    If it really stretches any current areas of technology, or adds any new ones to the mix, it could ultimately have some use. That’s what I’ve seen so far with Google Chrome, the browser. It certainly has NOT replaced Firefox, and reading Google’s public comments, it is NOT intended to, and many of Google’s engineers continue to contribute to the Firefox project, and the company heavily supports the Mozilla Foundation. What they wanted to do there was explore Web browsing technology and try to improve it with a fresh, different look at ways of rendering pages and in building a smaller, lighter base for managing the Web.

    If Google takes a similar attitude with an operating system, leveraging the same name, maybe it won’t be all bad. Chrome, the browser, has not taken over, and I sincerely doubt that ChromeOS, the operating system, will either. If it does introduce new ideas, it may validate those ideas, if they are good ones, or it will potentially help them and others to go in different directions if the ideas are a bust.

    If Google can afford to make these kinds of investments with questionable payback, then I am all for it. From my end of the world, it does not hurt to have yet another alternative available to me. Whether I choose to use it or even test it will greatly depend upon what actually becomes available and what I happen to be doing at that time. To say much more than that becomes speculation on my part. I do look forward to tracking developments and reports as they arise, and if I can find a platform I own where it works, I’ll try it out when I can actually get my hands on it.

  14. tlmck on September 1, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    I dunno, with the Google name behind it, it may go somewhere. The best thing they could do is drop the mention of Linux. How many people using Linux based smart phones know they are running Linux? Do they even care? The same questions could apply to Apple OSX being a version of BSD. What about the iPhone? If Google opens an app store similar to Apple’s, the OS question becomes a moot point anyway.

    Another market beyond the Netbooks are the low cost laptops being sold every where.(one example: http://www.microcenter.com/single_product_results.phtml?product_id=0312136&utm_source=mcol&utm_medium=leader_bnr&utm_campaign=hmpg_aspirentbk158691). Microcenter has sold a ton of these, and just got in a new shipment. Walmart and Bestbuy are hit or miss on availability. The point is, Acer and others who play in the low end could increase what little margin there is with a free “branded” OS. Ubuntu, Mint, etal are very good Linux distros, but they still carry the Linux moniker which inhibits their adoption into the masses.

    If successful, something like Chrome could be good for Linux as a whole when people discover the OS they like and use is actually Linux.

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