Chrome OS may fail even as it changes computing forever

What's amazing about Google's Chrome OS is that, despite what little is actually known about it, its announcement has turned the computer and software industry on its ear

Google says it is working on an operating system designed for netbooks that boots in seconds, is impervious to viruses, and is designed to run Web-based applications really well. What's not to like? Plenty--if you're the number one software maker, Microsoft. Expect a showdown. Google faces an uphill battle rolling out its operating system, Chrome OS. The irony is, Google may not care if Chrome OS succeeds or fails. Here's why.

What's amazing about Google's Chrome OS is that, despite what little is actually known about it, its announcement has turned the computer and software industry on its ear. The industry--and consumers--just want to love it. Google says chip makers Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, PC makers Acer and Hewlett-Packard, and software developers such as Adobe are collaborating on designing and building Chrome OS devices.

Google's big bet for the Chrome OS is that it can spur a new market for software, such as Google Docs, that can run entirely in a Web browser. It hopes we will rely on these Web services for storing work files, personal photos, and music on an always-on connected Internet. Want access to your photos or spreadsheets? Easy--just turn on your netbook, and there it is. No longer will we be chained by an ethernet cord to a bulky Windows PC. The Chrome OS future is about lightweight mobile PCs and devices always connected to the Web, giving you instant access to your data and applications in the so-called cloud.

Chrome to Ride Netbook Juggernaut

Chrome OS is hitching a ride on the fast-growing netbook segment of the computer industry. While notebook sales are flat, according to market research firm DisplaySearch, netbook sales are soaring with sales growing by 260 percent worldwide this year alone.

Nothing has been announced, but next year, don't be surprised if HP is selling dirt-cheap Chrome OS netbooks married to a wireless plan from Verizon Wireless. Sure, netbook makers and wireless carriers are already offering netbook giveaway promotions. But Google will have an advantage because Chrome OS will be free and the hardware requirements for running it are expected to be minimal, letting companies such as HP build ultracheap computers.

In this way Google hopes to do for the notebook what Apple has done with the iPhone--revolutionize the wireless industry by creating a Chrome OS device married to a source for apps like the iTunes App Store. Google's next stop after the netbook, it says, is the desktop.

But a lot can happen between now and late 2010, when Google says Chrome OS will be ready.

Chrome OS Challenges

First, Google will compete with another operating system, Linux, that has tried fruitlessly to replace Windows on consumer PCs. The Linux camp will give it another go with a Linux variant called Moblin that has the backing of Intel and is headed for netbooks soon. (No specific partners or dates have been announced.) Dell says it prefers Moblin to Chrome OS.

Google's Chrome will face another challenge from consumers. Do consumers want bare-bones netbooks tied solely to Web applications? What happens when you're on an airplane or if you can't get a wireless signal at the dentist's office? Privacy issues will also nag Google. How much do we want the company to know about our online and other computing habits?

Next, there's Google's arch-nemesis, Microsoft. Expect Microsoft to lob propaganda grenades at Google's Chrome OS later this year, perhaps with a campaign espousing the virtues of desktop software. That will happen just as it rolls out Windows 7, which Microsoft will be sure to remind us will ship on netbooks as well as desktops. Microsoft won't stop there as it protects its Windows software empire. It will flex its industry might behind the scenes, forcing hardware makers and software developers to reconsider jumping aboard the Chrome OS bandwagon.

Lastly, Microsoft will have its own brand of Web services to push. In July, it announced it would release online versions of its popular Office software to consumers for free. Microsoft is mum on specifics regarding its Web-based suite of Office apps, stating only that the suite will be available months before Google's Chrome OS is set to launch.

Google's Unstated Goal

Google's true ambition actually has less to do with building a new operating system and more to do with keeping Microsoft on its toes. By promising to deliver the Chrome OS, the search giant is challenging Microsoft to beat it in a race to a future where online programs can eventually surpass desktop software. Google is also using the threat of the Chrome OS to coax countless software developers to get serious about building Web services that run in the browser instead of the Windows operating system.

Does Google think it can topple Microsoft even on the netbook? It's wishful thinking, but if the company plays its cards right, it won't matter. Even if Google eventually gives up on Chrome OS, it will have forced Microsoft and the rest of the industry to take giant steps toward deploying cloud services. By that time, Google will be just as happy to have us access a Google Chrome Web App Store via a Windows PC or a MacBook as via a Chrome OS netbook.

What we need to ask ourselves is, what's in this for Google? Is Google really trying to make the world a better place with Chrome OS? Maybe, but at the end of the day Google wants to sell ads. Google's Chrome OS allows it to become the ultimate advertiser, owning nearly every aspect of your digital life from the operating system you use to how you search and work online.

Don't expect Google to sulk as it watches Microsoft, Apple, and others attempt to crush the Chrome OS with innovative Web-based services of their own. Google may shed some crocodile tears, but as the obituaries of the Chrome OS flash across browser windows, Google Ad Words ads may just be hawking the latest Web apps.

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Tom Spring

PC World (US online)
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