What Chrome OS has on Windows that Linux doesn't

Because the Web is already a powerful force, Google's OS project has a leg up over would-be Microsoft challengers such as Linux. But it has its own issues too.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

Google's Chrome OS isn't the first operating system to challenge Microsoft Windows' commanding lead. But it's got an advantage that other rivals such as Linux lacked: the Web.

Any new operating system must attract the developers who produce the applications to make it useful. The trouble Windows challengers have had is matching the wide spectrum of software available for Windows already.

That software includes mainstream titles such as Microsoft Office, Quicken, Adobe Photoshop, games, but also innumerable programs for narrower niches such as genealogy. Although some people are happy if they have the handful applications they need, an operating system needs broad support to achieve mass penetration.

Canonical's Ubuntu version of Linux has a lot of buzz as a desktop operating system, but when April 15 comes around, TurboTax doesn't run on it. Multiply that by all software the world needs and the Windows incumbent advantage becomes clearer.

Chrome OS faces the same applications challenge as any other operating system, but it's rising to that challenge in a different way. It includes the Chrome browser running on a stripped-down version of Linux, but the applications won't run on Linux, they'll run on the Internet. Chrome is the conduit to the Web applications, and Chrome OS is the vehicle by which Google will get the browser installed on Netbooks starting in the second half of 2010, the company promises.

The Web is the OS
"For application developers, the Web is the platform," Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management, and Linus Upson, engineering director, said in the Google Chrome OS blog announcement Tuesday.

That gives Google some real advantages. Everybody already is using the Web, including everybody using Windows. Adding Web applications to your life is a much more gradual shift than suddenly cutting over from Windows to Linux or Mac OS X.

Programmers writing Web applications can reach anyone using Windows--and Mac OS X, Linux, and even a lot of advanced mobile phones, for that matter.

And speaking of those programmers, there are innumerable Web developers already gainfully employed. Many of the advanced ones are headed in Google's direction of interactive Web applications rather than passively viewed, static pages.

Aside from Google's own Web applications, such as Google Docs and Gmail, there are online photo editors, personal finance tools, and games.

Then there are places such as Facebook that couldn't exist without the Web. Yahoo, Google, Facebook, MySpace and others are turning parts of their sites into vessels to contain others' Web applications, too, through foundations such as OpenSocial.

In short, while the Windows paradigm has been relatively static, the Web is blossoming as an applications platform. Even Microsoft is getting in on the action with its Web-based version of Office 2010.

Not so fast
So it's a slam dunk, right? Microsoft should just throw in the towel and sack everyone except the online Office team? Wrong.

The Web is increasingly useful, but it's got some big drawbacks as an applications foundation. Recreating the power and richness of applications that run natively on a PC with a Web application requires new technology and new expertise.

First, Web applications can't tap into hardware resources the way a native operating system can for reasons of security and technological limitations. Want to use that Webcam or burn your photos onto a DVD? Good luck using a Web app to do that.

Second, there's performance. Web applications run through a combination of standards such as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and JavaScript, where the Web programs actually run. Those standards are workable for basic chores, but computationally intense operations crawl compared with native applications, and user interfaces are often Spartan, too.

Third, there's that pesky issue of Internet connectivity. Web apps without the Internet are as useful as a sewing machine without thread. It's getting better, through 3G connections and whatever technologies will come later, but today you can't count on a network connection even in many high-tech regions.

Fourth, although there are plenty of Web developers at work, there aren't nearly so many who have the command over the necessary technology that they can write complex applications. That's even more the case when you consider applications often run differently on Chrome, Opera, Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari, and the market-leading Internet Explorer. Programming tools will help--Mozilla this week offered its own gallery--but it takes time to learn new coding methods.

Tackling the problems
Google may be ambitious, but it's not naive. It's tackling many of the problems.

For example, it's been agitating for years for more pervasive Internet access, and it offers tools such as Google Web Toolkit to try to ease the chores of writing JavaScript that supports multiple browsers.

And Google is working directly on the browser, too.

Chrome sports a multi-process architecture that, while it consumes more memory, isolates what's going on in each browser tab for reasons of performance and security. And it's got the V8 JavaScript engine, which Google hopes to use to accelerate JavaScript programs. Finally, it's got Gears built in, a technology that permits offline access to Web application data. Gmail and Google Docs have varying degrees of support for offline access through Gears.

Then there's work to improve performance even more. Native Client technology can let programmers endow a Web application with a downloadable module that runs directly on the processor, adding muscle to what can be done with relatively pokey JavaScript. And Canvas 3D project from Khronos Group and Mozilla, are designed to let browser-based applications take advantage of hardware graphics acceleration.

The problem isn't licked by far. But the Web shows no signs of diminishing in performance, pervasiveness, or sophistication. Google Chrome OS poses only a modest competitive threat to Microsoft Windows in the near term, but in the long term, it's a force to be reckoned with.