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Chrome OS proves Google can hype, but can it win?

Google gets points for making waves with its Chrome OS announcement, but it has yet to prove that its Linux strategy will be any more successful than others before it.

Google becomes more like Microsoft every day. It used to be that only Microsoft could pre-announce a product to mass hysteria (and mass exodus of start-ups dabbling in the area), then proceed to under-deliver for the first few iterations of the product and still make billions in the process. With Google Chrome OS, Google has signaled that it, too, can over-commit and under-deliver and still mint billions.

Perhaps equally dismaying, as Anil Dash suggests, is that Google may be having "its Microsoft moment" and starting to develop software to work nicely with its other software...rather than actually building software that its customers want.

But let's step back and strip away the frenzied media response to Google Chrome OS to determine what, exactly, Google announced: Google announced that it was shipping Ubuntu.

No, Google isn't calling it Ubuntu, but Chrome OS is nothing more than the promise of an Ubuntu fork. Given that we have Ubuntu and plenty of other Ubuntu forks today, what's the big deal?

Heck, for that matter, we also have Jolicloud, another Linux fork that promises to be an "Internet operating system" for Netbooks, just like Chrome OS. (Ubuntu makes largely the same claim.)

The difference, of course, is that you can actually use Jolicloud today (alpha version), unlike Chrome OS, and I'm actually typing this on an Ubuntu-based Netbook. (Incidentally, you've got to think that Jolicloud's investors were kicking themselves last week when Google announced Chrome OS a day after they announced Jolicloud's funding.)

So, Google will ship an Ubuntu fork, but one that presumably will come with its own secret sauce. Why? Well, as CNET's Rafe Needleman generously suggests, because "The stakes are big enough that it's worth the shot for Google."

Maybe. Maybe not.

Let's assume "Maybe." This still leaves Google with the stated intent to tackle a Lilliputian market that only the Linux crowd seems to get excited about, which is why Barron's slaps the idea around:

I think Google misunderstands the nature of netbooks, which simply are small, cheap, lightweight PCs. Early versions ran Linux, and didn't sell. Once the netbook companies loaded them with Windows, sales picked up. On its last earnings call, Microsoft noted that the attach rate for Windows on netbooks had reached 90%. The people have spoken. Netbooks are a misnomer; while people do use them to connect with the Web, they use them for a lot of other things. Customers want netbooks to run standard software, including Office. And I doubt there will ever be a version of Office for Chrome OS.

Of course they won't support Microsoft Office. They're going to support Google Docs! (See "Microsoft moment" above.) Much as I like Google Docs, and much as I like OpenOffice and a range of alternatives to Microsoft Office, the reality is that if you don't support Microsoft Office, you automatically limit the market appeal of your operating system, a lesson Apple learned. Apple's support for Office was the beginning of its rise within enterprise computing.

It's just incredibly hard to overcome the inertia of an incumbent in an established market. Google looks smart when it is changing the rules for computing (giving search away and charging for ads, moving e-mail to the cloud, etc.), but when it competes with Microsoft on its's likely going to lose. Mozilla's Asa Dotzler gives a hint as to why. (Spoiler: It's the installed base, stupid):

New markets on the Web can emerge and grow really quickly. There's lots of opportunity for something like Facebook to take over in just a few years. But that's not really the case for PCs and desktop software. The installed base is just really, really large, and the growth and upgrade cycle are much much slower than with Web services.

Firefox has been the most successful piece of desktop software to ever challenge Microsoft's offering. We started the effort 10 years ago and finally arrived at a successful product 5 years ago and in the 5 years since we shipped that product, we've managed to gain about 300 million users and a quarter of Web browsing usage.

Apple has been the most successful operating system to challenge Microsoft ever and they've managed in the 8+ years of OS X availability to grab only about 5% of the global OS installed base.

It's just not fast or easy to move a market that's more than a billion large. Anyone that thinks that major change can happen in months, or even a couple of years, doesn't understand this space very well.

Google came out with a new browser (Chrome) some time ago, and still barely scrapes 2 percent market share. (Fake Steve Jobs says this is because "Chrome is [crap]," but I think it has more to do with the difficulty of changing consumer behavior.) Firefox has done better, but even Firefox is an example of just how hard it is to fight an incumbent on its terms, particularly when the incumbent is perceived to be "good enough," as editor Martin Veitch notes.

It won't help that Google doesn't look or behave in the way enterprises demand, as ZDNet's Larry Dignan writes.

In sum, Google has a lot to prove, and doesn't have a track record of churning out hits. It has one significant moneymaker, whereas Microsoft has two, one of which Google is now targeting with Chrome OS. It's going to get ugly, but I suspect Google may be the company that ends up with the black eye. As an open-source advocate, I'd like it to be otherwise, but I just can't see enough differentiation in Google's approach to suggest it will be more successful than others before it.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.