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Comfort zones: Windows vs. Linux

The comfort zone for consumers will determine whether operating systems like Google Chrome prevail over Windows.

Where's your comfort zone? Windows, Mac, Linux? An unintellectual, emotional attachment to an operating environment often determines what consumers buy and may determine whether Google Chrome can ultimately compete with Windows.

In the consumer laptop space, specifically Netbooks, there isn't much hope for a Linux-based operating system like Google Chrome in the near term. So, first the bad news.

Market researcher iSuppli released a report Friday that I agree with. It begins with the usual, saying that Google's Linux-based Chrome operating system sets the stage for a battle of the Titans (Google versus Microsoft). But what it said after that affirmed my own convictions (and echoed comments I had heard before from other analysts).

"The small penetration of Linux in Netbooks is not due to any technical shortcomings," said Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst, compute platforms research for iSuppli. "Because the vast majority of people who buy Netbooks are consumers, who do not have a high degree of knowledge of the key players in the OS market, they are going with the names that they know. And in PCs, that name is Microsoft."

Asus fold-unfold mobile device concept: a compelling name-brand hardware-software package can change minds
Asus fold-unfold mobile device concept: a compelling name-brand hardware-software package can change minds Brooke Crothers

The report continues: "For Google to be successful, it needs to promote and position its brand so that non-tech-savvy consumers will be comfortable buying a Netbook running its operating system rather than one from Microsoft. This will be a major challenge."

In other words, it's hard to move people out of their comfort zone, particularly if the alternative is fractured like Linux. But there's a silver lining for Google's OS. The comfort zone is shifting. If consumers spend more time on a social-networking site (Facebook, Twitter) or a Web-based productivity environment (Google search, Gmail, Google docs) that becomes their comfort zone (the so-called "cloud") rather than the Windows, or Apple, desktop.

Of course, that's all just theory unless something else happens. What's that extra something? Give consumers a high-profile, respected brand like Google packaged with a slick Netbook and more than a few more could break their ties with Windows (because it becomes irrelevant). Particularly if the price is right.

It's been done before. A charismatic device like the iPhone proves that. In that case, consumers left the tenuous comfort zone of their interface-challenged cell phones in droves and embraced the iPhone.

But this doesn't happen often. And you need a very big, truly innovative company like Apple or Google to pull it off.

Conversations I had this week with both Texas Instruments and Qualcomm executives offer hope in the long term. TI and Qualcomm are building the chips that Chrome will run on and both have been working with Google. (TI told me that they have the Chrome OS running in some form already on their silicon.) Though Intel also says it is working with Google, I suspect Chrome is more of an ARM processor play than an Intel play.

Whatever happens in the next 12 months or so will be interesting and, at the very least, can only add to growing momentum behind mobile devices using ARM processors and non-Windows operating environments.