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Why Chrome OS doesn't matter--or does it?

Chrome OS may not be important taken by itself, but it illuminates a very disruptive trend.

I had planned to leave the Google Chrome OS discussion to others. It's not that I don't have strong opinions about it but with a commentariat noise level approaching the Michael Jackson ruckus of Tuesday, I figured I'd try to wrap up a client project instead. I did so and I've been getting questions all day, so I thought it would be useful to put down my thoughts in a systematic way rather than answering every query ad hoc.

Let me start out by making what is probably a controversial statement. I don't see this as a big deal. Microsoft is not now radioactive. The Force has not been disrupted. The computer industry does not look different than it did yesterday.

Look. Just about everyone has been assuming that Google was going to bring the Google Android operating system that it developed primarily for smartphones to low-end notebooks. While Chrome OS is different from Android, it's conceptually pretty much the same thing--an open-source operating system built atop a Linux kernel.

So now Google has pre-announced that it's going to do basically what everyone figured it was going to do. Sorry, but that doesn't make me want to run through the streets shouting and hollering.

This is, in many respects, just another Linux distribution. And Linux has (speaking charitably) not had the impact on the general-purpose PC market that its supporters once hoped it would. Sure, enthusiasts load Linux onto PCs and it can work quite well, but even at an open-source developer conference you'll often see far more Macs than PCs running Linux. I can't say that I understand why Chrome OS would succeed where Ubuntu has, if not failed, largely played to a niche.

It's Google we're talking about here to be sure. To which I say that Google has had plenty of failures: Orkut, Google Video, Knol, and Google Base anyone?

Fundamentally, I'm skeptical that anyone is in a position to seriously displace Microsoft and Apple from effective ownership of the general-purpose desktop and notebook space. There's so much ecosystem, most of all software ecosystem, in place that a new entrant would have to offer just overwhelming advantage. Which Linux didn't and doesn't.

There's a story here but it's not about displacing Microsoft.

Rather, I see Chrome OS as reflecting a change in the client and the way we access applications. To the degree that Chrome OS further illuminates and, by doing so, accelerates such change it may indeed be important in its own right. However, this is largely a change that's happening with or without Google--and certainly with or without anything Google does with respect to client operating systems.

And it's this macro-trend that's the real threat to Microsoft, not Chrome OS. Microsoft's franchise is built in no small part on having become the de facto standard API for programs running on another de facto standard that we colloquially call the PC. That franchise may be hard to crack (although Apple has had a degree of success) but that franchise doesn't necessarily carry over to new areas where far less software is locally installed and therefore a "standard API" becomes much less important.

The Linux desktop (whether Chrome OS, Ubuntu, or whatever) won't be your father's PC and it may not even look like a PC at all. That's the far bigger threat to Microsoft. Not that it won't be able to defend its existing franchise but that it will be cut off from extending that franchise into computing that happens over the Net rather than locally.