FAQ: The Google Chrome OS riddle

Google chrome project raises a ton of questions

Google's unveiling of its Chrome OS project was akin to opening a Pandora's box of questions. Perhaps actor Joe Pesci said it best in his role as David Ferrie in Oliver Stone's "JFK": "It's a mystery wrapped inside a riddle inside an enigma". While we know a few basics -- open source, lightweight, targeted initially at netbooks, runs on x86 and ARM processors -- there are a lot more mysteries to be solved before netbooks running the Chrome OS hit the shelves next year.

How is Chrome different from operating system choices today?

Well, that's not clear. If you drink the Google Kool-Aid, Chrome will boot up faster, run more efficiently and be free of security concerns. That's a nirvana every operating system developer would like to live in whether their software runs on a PC or a mobile phone. With Google starting at the Linux kernel and building out from there, the company is going to have to come up with something compelling beyond the Google brand name to get consumers to see a new standard of usability emerging.

What am I going to run on Chrome?

If Google adds a new windowing system and tweaks the security architecture in Linux, like it says it will, then no Linux applications will run on Chrome without potentially major rewrites. Clearly, the operating system won't run Windows applications. That's two big strikes against Google moving Chrome to the desktop in the future as it suggests. What's left is Web applications, which Google says is the initial target on the netbook. But what will be compelling about those applications to get users to adopt the platform? Google says the Web-based applications developers build will run on any operating system and browser. So why use the Chrome OS?

Where could Google innovate?

Here are some theories. "This could be an opportunity to take this stuff in the browser and bring it closer to the desktop environment and make things appear to run natively from the desktop," says Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC. "This is speculation, but if Google could make that kind of leapfrog forward they could do something really interesting here." Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT said Google could potentially use co-processors to off-load some computing needs, just like devices do today, and create customized platforms designed for such things as video or highly secure computing. "I think in a way that is a very distributive idea," King says.

Does Chrome fracture Linux?

The forking discussion in the Linux community will heat up once the Chrome OS Linux distribution rounds into focus. Some will recall that Google built its own Linux-based machines for its data center infrastructure and was roundly criticized for not contributing code changes back to the community. Google doesn't want to slip here. As part of the Chrome announcement it said: "We have a lot of work to do, and we're definitely going to need a lot of help from the open source community to accomplish this vision." The early word from the Linux Foundation is this: "We are supportive of using community-developed and community-supported upstream components. We think it's best for consumers and the community but also the vendors."

Where is the support?

Windows isn't popular because Microsoft did a good job marketing the operating system; it is popular because Microsoft did a stellar job providing developers with tools to build applications for the operating system. Users bought the apps, not the operating system. Google will have to build a rich partner system around Chrome OS that extends past hardware vendors. "For this to catch fire, we have to see some major league ISVs buy into the Web delivery applications that Chrome OS devices will be built for. But there are a lot of 'ifs' in that scenario," says Pund-IT's King.

Google says it just works? Really.

No viruses, no malware, no security issues. That's tough talk that even Google has to prove in the real world. But it sounds nice. It sounds real nice if you remember something called Conficker.

Is Google late to the game?

The netbook market is moving fast and Google won't be around with the Chrome OS for another year. Google will have to create something that shakes the foundation of the market much like Apple did to the mobile phone market with its iPhone. Sure hardware manufacturers are aligning with Google, so the company says, but that's good business for them not solid commitment to seeing Chrome through to completion.

Is this for the enterprise?

Given the limited information that is out now the only conclusion can be 'no.' Could that change? Perhaps -- but Linux has been fighting that desktop battle for years now without much more than a smudge put on the plow horse that is Microsoft. Again the issue here is to create something new, compelling and perhaps revolutionary not knock off the incumbent.

And what about Microsoft?

Google and Microsoft are battling on many fronts, but the operating system is not a place where Google wants to "play on Microsoft's home court," according to IDC's Gillen. With Windows 7 slated to ship in a little more than three months, many corporate users are thinking about migrations, which takes another operating system upgrade for them off the table for at least the next two to three years. Microsoft will have a Win 7 version for the netbook in the market well ahead of Google, which will still have to prove itself. Google, however, is ripping a page out of Microsoft's book. They are using slideware - or in this case blogware - to float a trial balloon and gather feedback, and to potentially create some hesitation among buyers.

Is there a link to the beta tag purge made on Google Apps?

Seems the message from Google in lifting the beta tag on its applications earlier this week was to prove to people that it could advance software development beyond the beta stage. Given the juxtaposition of the two announcements, clearly Google wants to send the message that it can finish what it starts.

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