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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.