I’ve resisted writing anything on the recently-announced Google Chrome OS, for a number of reasons… the most significant one being that so far, we don’t know a huge amount about it. This hasn’t stopped reams of opinion being written or spoken about it anywhere else though, so a week on from the announcement, I thought I’d lay down a few opinions of my own.
First of all, I always felt that the Chrome browser itself kind of pointed towards an operating system, since the engineers were clearly thinking in terms that you’d usually associate with an OS – ideas like the threading model immediately made me think of the domain of the operating system. The “Google OS” has been one of those rumours that has consistently failed to die.
So what do we know? We know that Google Chrome OS will be based on Linux and will be largely open source, and that the initial target constituency will be the netbook market but that it has ambitions to the desktop. We know that it will have a new windowing system (bye bye X). We hear that Google has been courting various netbook manufacturers, and we know that it should be out sometime in 2010.
On the threat to the desktop
Scott Bourne was saying on MacBreak Weekly this week that he felt this meant it would be no real threat to Mac OS X, and I guess the ensuing discussion really sparked the majority of this post. Scott based his assertion on a straw poll of people who he’d asked “OS X or Chrome?” (a: OS X) for laptops, and “Chrome or Windows Mobile?” (a: Chrome) for PDAs. I just think that’s an impossible discussion right now. So far it’s vapourware. We don’t know what Google Chrome OS will look like and we don’t know what features it will have. It’s pointless to try to compare it to existing operating systems at this stage.
The other reason the MacBreak Weekly crew decided that Chrome OS wouldn’t be a threat was that it would initially be limited to netbooks but “will it actually be able to make the step up to the desktop?”. This is an interesting discussion, as it assumes that the granddaddy / holy grail of machines is the desktop computer. But… wait a minute. Haven’t Apple spent the past two years convincing the whole mobile market that they have to have fully-capable computing platforms on their handheld devices? Isn’t the netbook market exploding? Aren’t laptops outselling desktops? Aren’t computers and televisions converging via set-top boxes and streaming media? People want computing power and access wherever they are, in a form factor that fits. I think the suggestion that the desktop is still “where its at” is deeply, deeply flawed – the desktop is dying, and has been for a long time. The desktop is a place where people occasionally anchor themselves, but the rest of the time they are moving around and taking their platform with them.
So is it a threat? On netbooks, in my opinion, yes – probably to both Linux and Windows. As for Apple, they aren’t going to be keen to let anyone run another OS on their hardware, and they’re not currently in the netbook market, so it probably is not a big deal right now. Windows XP still seems to be an OS of choice on many netbooks, but Microsoft probably will finally kill that with Windows 7. There are too many Linux distributions around (Linpus, Moblin, Ubuntu) vying for a slice of that market. The Google brand, combined with an experience that is genuinely pleasant, could take chunks out of both sides of that market. From there, who knows… but if it is Linux-based, we already know that that scales from big to small machines, so there are plenty of places it could go. I personally think it will be interesting to see where they choose to go with the user interface, and this is the area that will determine the future.
On the cloud
I think the idea that Chrome OS could be a lightweight system with the majority of content hosted in the cloud is particularly interesting. How secure are we all feeling this week about the safety of the cloud? In the light of the Twitter hack, I imagine that people are rethinking the security of the public cloud, anyway. Paired with a secure behind-the-firewall private cloud, a lightweight OS like this makes a lot of sense. That’s not to say I don’t like the flexibility that cloud/web-based services offer me – I use many of them, including things like Google Docs. Of course, you need a network connection for it to be effective, and it’s true that bandwidth is becoming pervasive, although if you take a look at 3G coverage for various UK mobile operators (hint, look at the PDF and the maps *per operator*, not the overall coverage map), you might want to rethink your dependence on that, too.
On the image
Will Google be able to get away with labelling Chrome OS “beta” to start off with? I think that in order to get people to use it, beyond the Google brand name, it will have to be really good, polished, and / or flashy and convincing enough as an initial experience for people to base their computing lives on it. I think it will probably have to have had more testing than many of the existing Google cloud web products.
Right now, all we can really say is: “well, this is interesting”. We can speculate, but frankly, I don’t think we know enough to say anything more. That’s all I’m sayin’.