Chrome OS for the clueless: What it means for real people

Google's new operating system is certainly something to get excited about, but don't put a new laptop purchase on hold because you want a Chrome Netbook.

Late Tuesday night, Google, the company that became a tech giant through search and advertising company, announced that it's branching out into an unrelated direction, the operating system business. It will release next year the Chrome OS, a free competitor to Microsoft's Windows operating system. It will be targeted at Netbooks, a class of small, inexpensive computers, although eventually it will make its way to full-powered notebooks and desktop computers. It will be designed for accessing Web applications (like Google's own GMail and Google Docs), and it will take a lot of design and technology cues, as well as its name, from Google's browser, Chrome.

What does this mean to people who are thinking about buying a new computer now, or next year? Is the Chrome OS something to get excited about, or even wait for?

We won't know for sure what the operating system looks like until it comes out, which answers the second question handily: do not wait. If you need a new computer now, spend the money and get the use out of the machine while Google figures out how and when to get the Chrome OS out the door.

But to the other question: yes, this is very interesting, and potentially could cause some transformations in the computer industry, although they may be more subtle than Google--and Microsoft's detractors--hope.

Who cares about operating systems?

Computers need operating systems. Even computers that do nothing but run Web browsers need one. An Application like a Web browser--Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome--needs to run on top of a platform that gives it access to the hardware resources of the computer (the memory, the persistent storage, access to the networking and communications hardware, the screen, the keyboard, and so on); to peripherals plugged into a computer (printers, cameras that connect, memory cards); to the other software on the the computer (like the system for storing files); and lastly, to you, the user.

Or do they? What if you combined the operating system's functions with a browser's functions, which include accessing and displaying Web pages, keeping track of bookmarks and passwords, and connecting to computer-attached resources like Webcams?

Google is answering that question with Chrome OS. Google is saying, with this product, that the modern computer user spends so much time working with Web-based resources that the main control system for the computer should be the browser, not the operating system. Furthermore, Google sources tell us that the Chrome OS experience will bear little resemblance to existing way that users interact with their computer's main control program. A person familiar with the Chrome OS project told us, "All existing operating systems predate the Web, and the user interfaces are stuck in a desktop metaphor." The Chrome OS, we're led to believe, will be very different.

How? We don't know. It's a safe bet that the Chrome OS will lean more heavily on so-called "cloud storage" products--like Google's own productivity suites, Google Docs--that let users store their data and documents not on their computers but rather on the systems of the Web apps they are running. The great thing about cloud storage is that it's untethered to any individual user's computer. Log in to your Google Docs account from anywhere, and there's your whole workspace, right in front of you. It's liberating.

Google may also take a cue from its own e-mail application, GMail, which blends the traditional idea of having folders for e-mail with the concept of "labels." In GMail, you can drag messages into folders to file them, or you can drag folders (or labels) over messages to categorize them. It's the same thing, but the hierarchy people are used to in operating systems, where a file is in one folder at a time, and the folder may be nested in another folder, is simply not there. Folders and labels are interchangable and far more fluid.

But in Windows 7, Microsoft's next operating system, Folders are also less rigid than they've been in previous versions of Windows.

We can also expect that the Chrome OS will borrow user interface elements from Chrome the browser--like a tabbed metaphor for switching between "apps," and the mind-reading command line (address bar in the browser). It may also evidence Google's traditional obsession with clean (if not necessarily attractive) design and speed. The Chrome OS should be fast.

A ruse by any name

But under the hood, the Chrome OS will still be a traditional operating system. It will be an adaptation of Linux, a free operating system lovingly maintained, in various versions, by a global community of programmers. The Chrome OS will likely borrow the gritty bits of the operating system, the parts that connect to the computer's CPU, the memory, and other hardware. Google's most visible contribution, in addition to the human resources it puts on the project of working at the core of the operating system, will be in the user interface and how the OS handles user data and files.

Will users buy it? They haven't so far. The first Netbooks came with Linux-based operating systems, and users shunned them (or more specially, returned them to their points of purchase) in favor of computers running yesterday's version of Microsoft Windows, XP. Even though XP adds cost to a computer due to the high licensing fee that the manufacturers have to pass on to consumers, those consumers voted to pay the extra money for the familiarity of Windows.

The Chrome OS could well be better than any of the Linux variants that have come before it. It will certainly be cheap--Google says it will be free to manufacturers. Google also says it will be safer, thanks to technologies like "sandboxing" from the Chrome browser that prevent one app from infecting or stealing data from another.

But no matter how much better the Chrome OS is than Windows, users are still accustomed to Windows, and the first target market for Chrome OS, the Netbook category, presents special challenges. First, it's a small market, and second, many Netbook buyers get the machines as secondary, portable computers. They already have a larger laptop or desktop and they want a mini-size, portable accessory to go with it. For those users, a radically different operating system is a stumbling block, no matter how good it is by itself.

The stakes are big enough that it's worth the shot for Google. Google makes money through targeted advertising. The more they know about what you do, the better the ads you get will perform. If Google knows what you do at the operating system level, they can deliver you more specific advertising content. Also, a Google OS would likely lead people to Google services--and not Microsoft's or Yahoo's. Also, this is a long-term game. Google doesn't need to knock Microsoft off its peg tomorrow, or next year. But over time, the company may be able to chip away at Microsoft's pre-eminence as the leading operating system vendor, or at the very least force Microsoft to make its own operating systems more Web-friendly, which benefits the most popular Web service provider there is: Google.

Google needs to start spreading the word on the Chrome OS now, and not a year from now when the product comes out, to get developers and computer manufacturers excited about the platform, and working on compatible products. That takes time. It's also an area where Microsoft has an excellent track record; the Windows company spends a ton of money and energy on developer relations.

The most likely short-term impact the Chrome OS will have on the Netbook market is that it may encourage Microsoft to drop its prices on the Windows 7 licenses it sells to manufacturers. But until developers start writing major software for the operating system (games, photo editors, and major productivity suites like Office), it's very unlikely that Google will have much of an impact on Windows sales.

Meanwhile, it's worth noting that Microsoft is hardly standing still. Its new Bing search engine is actually quite good in comparison to Google's most popular product, Google Search, and the upcoming version of Microsoft Office will have Web capabilities that put it in competition with Google's online word processor and spreadsheet.

A year from now, there will likely be Google Chrome OS Netbooks (and possibly larger laptops) available for sale alongside Windows-powered models. Will people like me recommend them? Maybe, for some users, in particular those on tight budgets and those with no or only limited knowledge of Windows or Apple's OS.

Building an operating system is a major project, but it's only part of the job. Even if the Google OS is fantastic, it will need to steal customers accustomed to using Microsoft and Apple devices. And even if those customers want to be convinced that Google's product is better, they may find it very difficult to make the switch.

 

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