Google Chrome Operating System: the Facts and Fallacy

By Craig Buckler
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Google Chrome vs Microsoft WindowsGoogle’s recent Chrome OS announcement caused a tsunami of media speculation. Can Google create a usable OS in less than a year and take on Microsoft at their own game? The facts have been overawed by opinion, but few facts are available. Here’s a summary of what we know so far…

  • Google Chrome Operating System will be released in the second half of 2010.
  • Since all OSs predate the web, Google is re-thinking what an operating system should be. They aim to create a secure OS without virus and malware issues.
  • The OS will focus on speed and simplicity. It will boot quickly, have a minimal interface, and be ideal for people who spend the majority of their time on the web.
  • There are rumors that Intel is involved. Initially, Chrome OS will be available on AMD and Atom-based netbooks, with desktop and laptop installations arriving later.
  • Chrome OS hardware vendors include Acer, ASUS, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Toshiba.
  • The OS will be open source and free.

Although Google already has the Android operating system, Chrome OS is a separate project. Technically, it will be based around a lightweight Linux kernel and a new windowing system (note: Linux uses the X Window System. Any graphical user interface can be built on top so, unlike Windows, Linux users can choose from GNOME, KDE, Xfce or any other desktop environment.) Google’s Chrome browser will be the primary application and I suspect Google Gears will provide offline functionality.

Cloud-based operating systems are not a new idea. Netscape proposed the possibility in the late 1990s and, even though it was pure vaporware, it was one of the primary reasons Microsoft fought and won the first browser war. Even today, Google is behind similar projects such as Moblin and Jolicloud.

Although the Chrome OS announcement has an element of marketing hype, there is good reason to believe Google are serious. Controlling the browser allows Google to direct users to their online applications. GMail, Docs, and Wave could receive a registration boost that increases advertising revenues and user lock-in.

Is it possible to develop a new OS within one year? OS development is tough; Microsoft and Apple have been working on them for almost 30 years and they still make mistakes. Using Linux could help, but even the Chrome browser is not complete on that OS.

So can Google take on Microsoft assuming they produce a viable alternative to Windows? It’s unlikely:

  • Although the netbook market is growing, it is still small and Microsoft has a 90% share.
  • Quick-booting Linux-based netbooks have been available from the start, but the majority of consumers still want Windows.
  • Netbooks remain uncommon in important corporate sector and most businesses rely on desktop applications.
  • Although users are happy to surf, shop, and socialize online, few people do real work in the cloud.
  • Could Microsoft compete? Absolutely. Windows 7 is already optimized for netbooks and IE8 is good enough. The company could quickly create a bare-bones version of the OS.

However, there are several opportunities Google could investigate:

  • If the devices are inexpensive — perhaps under $200 — installing Windows would become commercially impractical.
  • A Google-branded machine might attract users, especially if the hardware is sold as a PDA or an internet device rather than a mini-laptop. Innovative features such as touch-screen navigation could also increase sales.
  • Chrome OS could be provided in addition to Windows. A dual-boot system would allow users to choose which system they wanted on start-up. Alternatively, Chrome OS could be provided on bootable memory cards or USB drives. In the long-term, Google could even investigate the possibility of a lightweight BIOS-based system.

Chrome OS will continue to attract massive media speculation until its release (and, yes, that includes SitePoint!) Even if Google gets it right, they face a huge uphill struggle. They’ve had limited success persuading people to switch browsers; expecting them to switch operating system is a far more difficult challenge.

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  • Jaremy

    Great post. I still think that until we can actually get our hands on or see screenshots, a beta or release candidates, this is all speculation though. You made some good points, and I do believe that it will be very difficult for Google to penetrate the OS market, regardless of what it offers, however. I think the question of whether it is a serious threat for Microsoft or Apple will have to wait until we can see something more concreate, however.

    The Windows 7 price point is also lower, and offers some great features, so it’s hard to see a fledgling operating system dethroning the king any time soon :-)

  • Robert Bravery

    Just another Linux build. Do we need another one. We have so many to choose from.
    Having said that, I do hope it succeeds, if any one can do it Google can. But you’re right, I harldy think it will give Microsoft Windows a go. With linux overall only having about 15 of the market, Chrome would have to be something extra extra special.
    Introducing Google Chrome Operating System

  • Jarryd

    As much as I would like to see it, I don’t see this differing anything, really. There are many choices for browsers and OSs now, but the majority of the world use Microsoft products, just because that’s what they know and have built their infrastructure on it. Monopoly at its best. Maybe if things were different 30 years ago other groups, whether commercial or open source, would have a chance in the market.
    Either way it will be interesting to see how Google’s OS will work, and how it does in the market :).

  • Sharon Machlis

    “All OSs” do not predate the Web. The roots of all popular desktop operating systems do, but they are not the OS universe. There are new mobile operating systems, such as the Palm Pre Web OS, which were not only designed after the Web but for it. And there are other niche and research operating systems that were first developed after the early ’90s.

  • LRS

    I think that Google has a strong fan base,(I’m in that group..) and I’ll be curious to see how all of this plays out. I doubt the infrastructure of main stream business will change anytime soon, but what about those companies and businesses that are just starting up? With all the Options and possibilities as well as Cloud Computing what will be the next evolution for Desktops and mobile devices?

  • @Sharon Machlis
    Point taken, but certainly all major PC OSs pre-date the web. Few are built from the ground up.

    I can’t see Google changing the concepts overnight. After all, their OS won’t be much more than a stripped-down Linux with Chrome. It’ll still implement base file and hardware management using 20 year-old code.

  • I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it sounds like it’s less of an OS as we’ve come to expect and more of a thin web client interface for the existing google services – and very little else. That explains the name, and how they could get it out the door so quickly – it’s only really running a single real application ([sic], not service) on top of the kernel. I wouldn’t be surprised if all “applications” written for it didn’t have to be pulled from the web, the same way Facebook Applications are. So we’re really just back to the dummy terminals of 30 years ago.

  • I use Windows, Mac and Ubuntu depending on which machine I am working on and though I was excited about a Google OS at first I don’t like the idea of a Google lock in, too much risk of yet another walled garden version of the internet. I will probably try it if it will work on my existing Netbook but we will see.

  • Brandon

    The one thing I hope this does is give incentive to make the Flash player better on Linux.

    It is genuinely awful at this point. Google Chrome OS wouldn’t need a huge amount of marketshare… but for a device where almost all of its functionality is through the browser, I would hope Flash is optimized on Linux in order to create a better user experience.

    Probably a pipe dream, though…

  • spheroid

    @Robert Bravery: Linux is not more adopted because it’s to geek-y. If Linux builds were more like OS X, and easy to navigate, they’d catch on. Linux GUIs in my opinion still haven’t captured the look of Apple (or the copy-cat Vista).

  • @spheroid
    I’m not so sure about that. The early netbooks had attractive, easy-to-use interfaces and people still demanded Windows. People choose what they know – after all, even OSX has a tiny market share compared to Windows.

  • I think the only way for any OS to beat Windows is to simply offer at least some degree of a compatibility with it, without requiring a virtual machine (or at least not a visible, full fledged one). Microsoft know this better than anyone (“embrace and extend”… ring any bells?).

    One think that Microsoft have done, and could be used against them is the .NET framework. There’s a growing amount of applications written on it, and recent versions of Windows (Vista, 7) include it without extra packages, so the number of apps is only going to grow. If an OS could have its own CLR that could run the same DLLs, it can become seamlessly compatible with Windows. On the very least, it should be able to compile source codes that the .NET framework, and produce equivalents, runnable on its own CLR. That would highly encourage application developers to build applications for that OS. Coupled with WINE and other projects that try to run Windows binaries, we might end with an OS that behaves exactly (or closely enough) to Windows, and also feels familliar enough.

  • For Google to attract any market share, they need to answer the questions being asked by the majority of buyers, the casuals, such as:

    1) Is it secure against “Viruses” (that being viruses, worms, malware, et al.)
    2) Is Microsoft Office compatible?
    3) Can I play games such as Starcraft?
    4) Does it have “Internet”, and can I watch vids online like YouTube and Hulu?
    5) Is it compatible with my camera/phone/pda/printer/webcam/controller/stick/etc.

    Then, of course, you have to deal with the more tech-oriented users:

    1) Is it compatible with Adobe products?
    2) Is it compatible with Eclipse-based IDE’s?
    3) Can it run Apache locally?
    4) Can it run Ruby locally?
    5) Is it easy to create networks with?

    Microsoft and Apple can do all of the above. “Free” isn’t good enough if there’s nothing in it that justifies not choosing Windows or OSX over it.

  • I was at Mediamarkt today. New in Sweden, but perhaps Europe’s biggest retailer in consumer electronics. I asked about Linux netbooks. The answer: “We have an agreement with Microsoft to sell Windows exclusively…” That did not stop them from selling Macs though.

    Since there is no benefit whatsoever in using Windows on a netbook, they obviously lost me as a customer. But the real reveal was that they would have gotten a worse deal with MS, had they not agreed to not sell Linux.

    Since we know that Steve Ballmer considers Ubunto a worse threat than Mac, this is once again an indication that MS is using its near monopoly status to bully resellers. And since consumers loose, it should be illegal. I hope the EU will do something about it.

    I therefore welcome Chrome OS wholeheartedly. Not because it is appealing to me – I want a “real” desktop distro – but because it might make consumers and lawmakers more aware of MS unethical business practices.

  • I really, Really have got to try this when it comes out!

  • Bravo, this rather good idea is necessary just by the way

  • I’m tired of reading about Chrome OS, but this is a really good post. I guess we’ll just have to wait a little longer to see what it actually does in action

  • Tim

    I don’t understand what the hype is really. As far as I know, they already have a custom OS running internally for their employees, so I assume it’s just an extension of that, not a ground up build from nothing. Will it run Office, I doubt it. Will it run games? I doubt it. It’s charted as a web surfing OS, which essentially means the OS will be the browser. If it can’t run from a web page, I’m not really expecting it to appear as part of the “OS”. My bet is on an AIR/Silverlight style system where everything runs in it’s virtual machines so everything is sandboxed.

  • CCI-Sloan

    The days of the desktop, disconnected from the internet is coming to a close. Full functionality of our systems relies heavily on the internet. Hence we are seeing the definition of the cloud O/S in action.

    If google does this right, Here would be the model. Google writes remote hosted application suites like office, accounting etc. Your information is all remote hosted. The only thing you’ll need is a thin client, or micro laptop to actually work anywhere. Google creates a very fast and simple O/S. that goes directly to their hosting sites. Turn your computer into a piece of hardware. Like a toaster.. turn it on and it works.

    You have two options.. the free/slower version with ads that popup. or The 3G version (or higher) at a monthly fee with little or no ads.

    Gone are gotomypc,Remote desktop, VNC, because all you need is an internet connection and your docs are with you.

    This is cloudware and this is the future of computing. We’re doing it now with cell phones, twitter, facebook etc. Its the next evolution.

    Its just taken google a while to prove that it can make money doing this, and now is the time.

    We all then have our internet bill, and our web-hosting bills. I can see kiosks in the airport where you can work, or anywhere you have a wi-fi.
    I also see the internet being totally free.

  • AnonJr

    … because the web is the shining example of security …
    That aside, even if it goes nowhere, having something to push Apple and MS to strive for a better system is a good thing.Think of where IE would be if Fx hadn’t spurred MS to start work on it again? Regardless of where you stand on IE8 you got to admit that MS is moving IE forward. (maybe not at the pace some would like, but its still moving forward)

  • I don’t think this is anything about making a general replacement for Windows, but everything about targeting the corporate desktop. Look inside large companies and government departments and you see acres of cloned Lenovo desktops supplied to staff that run nothing but Outlook, Office, and a Browser – that’s what they are targeting.

    Replace Outlook and Office with Google Apps, suddenly you are wondering why Staff need Windows at all. Here’s the answer. And don’t forget you have Google AppEngine for custom intranet apps.

    IMHO it’s all about getting part of the corporate market that MS seems to have locked up.

  • Anon

    Interesting. But doen’t this article look like a clone of this original Article
    God knows!

  • Webnet

    I’d switch in a heartbeat

  • @Anon

    Interesting. But doen’t this article look like a clone of this original Article … God knows!

    He might … and so do I.

    It’s about Google OS but written differently and making different points. Also, I’d not seen it before your comment!

    Methinks you are fishing for a few extra link-throughs!

  • walterbyrd

    If enough stuff is browser-based, then users are not vendor-locked, that would be a huge blow to msft.

    For example, a lot of people use windows because they can not find an alternative to quickbooks. But, if quickbooks were a saas service, that could run on a standard browser, then those users could switch to linux, or macos, or whatever.

    When it comes to computers, popularity seems to be self-perpetuating. For example, the more people who use windows, the more developers will develop for windows, which means that even more people will use windows. But, if software is developed to run in a standard browser, then OS choice does not matter.

  • Idea shaking, I support.

  • KCChiefs

    Wow, another hit-piece against Microsoft from SitePoint, and open-source nerds. Yeah, Chrome has as much of a chance to succeed as Linux…..NONE! Windows 7 is a Linux killer, along with this shotty attempt by Google. How are your web apps working out Google?! Office will always own you….

  • @KCChiefs
    In what way is this anti-Microsoft? It’s stating that Google’s chances of beating MS are slim at best.

    I’ve worked for Microsoft. I use Microsoft products. I’ve just pre-ordered Windows 7. Microsoft has released some great software. They’ve also released some shoddy stuff and indulged in dubious activities. But the same could be said of many companies.

    I am not anti-Microsoft. Neither do I fervently jump to the company’s defence when no offence has been caused…

  • SiberianHuskey

    It could do fairly well, I just think they would have made more of a impact if they had of released ChromeOS before Windows7. I could be wrong and after Windows7 is released and ChromeOS comes out, many could jump aboard and use it. I’d highly recommend those who just use the Internet mostly to use ChromeOSover Windows7.

  • Karl Lurman

    I reckon a lot of you are missing the point really. Stop thinking about operating systems in terms of what you are used to seeing every time you fire up your computer. Start thinking about the tasks you do, and how those tasks will ALL eventually be done in ‘The Cloud’. Start thinking about how you will work collaboratively with anyone, anywhere, anytime, ALL THE TIME.

    Google’s OS is another step towards an ‘always-connected’ platform (The fact that it is even called an OS is a shame IMHO). Instead of being boxed into someone elses idea of how a computer should be interacted with, Google want to take The Web, and their applications of course, and make it the place you get things done in. A place where you have choice again! Where you can escape all the legacy crud and start fresh. Doesn’t that sound like an exciting prospect?

  • SiberianHuskey

    I know what cloud computing is, I just don’t know how long it will take before it catches on. They can push cloud computing easier on home users with cloud computers but on a regular basis a lot of work gets done on a corporate level.

    Since most are still on old out dated browsers, I don’t foresee this coming for a while, you can force it down the throat, then again all you may get is those who fight against because you didn’t figure a way to blend it together without being aggressive.

  • CCI-Sloan

    “I don’t know how long it will take before it catches on”. I think it caught on about 10 years ago with the internet A.K.A the “cloud”.
    The ability to have Highspeed access anywhere (wifi/3G) has been around for only a few years and now technology gives us the ability to quickly access the “cloud” from anywhere.

    For the seeable future, there will be hard wired “corporate networks” with older systems. However, that’s not what this article is about. It’s about a new small Operating system from google. Chromes main focus is simplicity and to get you to the cloud fast. Whether you access corporate files,or just browse, Googles O/S is the first step in “appliance style” computing.

    If you really want to blow your mind… Nano Technology.. computing without computers.

  • SiberianHuskey

    I don’t see the Internet as much of a cloud, it’s more of an information base and it has taken a real down turn over the past decade IMO. Chrome will focus more on simplicity this is true and for most computer users, it will suffice and I would suggest most users who do mostly online functions not to upgrade to a Windows but keep what they have and upgrade to ChromeOS.

    As for Nano technology it’s already here, but Nano computers will come when something thinks we are ready for it, as seen with a lot of technologies.