All the blithering excitement about Google’s Chrome OS announcement shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it’s currently vapourware and history suggests it will make little difference to the overall PC market.
It’s long been assumed that Google would eventually make some sort of play for the OS space. That play happened today when it announced (in typical Google fashion via a blog post) that it was indeed working on an operating system named Chrome OS and aimed at netbooks.
The post outlines the known facts: the OS will appear sometime in the second half of 2010 will work with both ARM and Intel x86 chips will be open source and will focus on launching into a browser as its main apps base. Given the project’s open source nature it’s inevitably drawing heavily on Linux with most web speculation pointing at Ubuntu and its forthcoming Karmic Koala distribution.
18 months is a long time in technology so given Google’s announced release schedule there’s no reason to get too excited. And based on what little we know there’s plenty of reasons not to. Here’s five to be going on with.
5. Current OSes proves the mass market wants no-brainer drivers lots of choice and Windows
Aiming to build a netbook OS helps Google partially sidestep the biggest problem with developing a PC operating system: making sure there are drivers to support all the possible hardware combinations. There are basically three approaches to this in the market today: tightly controlling both the hardware and the OS for stability and charging a premium as a result (Mac) trying to support a wide range of hardware and then getting loathed by consumers if everything doesn’t work (Windows) or relying on open source enthusiasm and cursing when manufacturers won’t share information (Linux).
Google’s approach sits somewhere between the Mac and Linux versions. It has said it is working with several manufacturers to build netbooks and doubtless the components in those will be carefully vetted to make sure they work. But even if you don’t want to modify the basic system components you’ll probably want to connected your netbook to a USB broadband key or a printer. Getting those vendors on board won’t be easy even for Google.
Google notes that users “don’t want to spend hours configuring their computers to work with every new piece of hardware”. How it proposes to solve that conundrum in a minimally-configured netbook environment is a huge question mark.
It’s also worth remembering that while netbooks can theoretically run anything most everyday consumers seem happy for them just to run Windows. ASUS for example pioneered the whole market with the Linux-based Eee 701 model but now only 5% of its models run on Linux.
4. Android proves that open source plus Google doesn’t equal mass market success
Though plenty of people have experimented with running Android (Google’s mobile phone OS) on netbooks Google has emphasised that Chrome OS will not be derived from Android. Nonetheless Android’s history provides a useful lesson in how adding the Google brand and open source to a hardware project won’t automatically result in massive market success in the short term.
Android was first announced in November 2007 after several years of internal development. Eighteen months later there are exactly two Android models available in the Australian market: hardly an earth-shattering result. It’s been widely assumed that phone hardware manufacturers will eventually produce Android drivers and that will open up a new market for the phone but precisely that kind of thinking led to Kogan’s currently aborted Agora project.
3. Chrome itself is hardly a world beater
Chrome has been in development for nine months. While its speed in executing Ajax is impressive and its multi-threaded approach commendable there are still plenty of features it doesn’t have (such as decent printing support). Its market share remains minute compared to Internet Explorer and Firefox suggesting that most users can’t see a compelling reason to switch (Google itself says “30 million people use it regularly” but doesn’t break down that statistic to cover how long they use it for). If the browser is going to be the basis for most applications access in Chrome OS then the Chrome browser is going to need to get a lot slicker.
2. The security claims are untested and dubious
Google’s announcement makes much of how it’s being written from the ground up to eliminate current security woes. “We are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses malware and security updates” its announcement boasts. “It should just work.”
Apple takeoff aside that sounds like a crock of shit. No modern OS is immune from requiring security updates — because bulletproof code is impossible — and there’s no reason whatsoever to assume Chrome will be any different. No OS can entirely protect against users installing disguised malware through greed or ignorance and if Chrome OS is a success hackers will work overtime to find and exploit any weaknesses in both areas. If they don’t do that it will be because the user base isn’t big enough to justify the effort not because Google has achieved the impossible and developed an unhackable system.
1. The Web isn’t a great applications platform
Apple’s experience with the iPhone also demonstrates the limitations of Google’s planned “run it all in the browser” approach. Until the iPhone App Store opened the only way to run applications on the phone was via the browser. That proved massively less popular than being able to deploy native iPhone apps. Working in a browser is a great technique but it doesn’t work for everyone.
Google has suggested its main audience is people who do want to work on the web but not all its statements gel with that vision. For instance it argues that the OS will be able to work on “full-size desktop systems” (one reason Android isn’t being used). But if you need a full-size desktop system it’s hard to imagine that you won’t want to run some power apps that can’t just use a browser for their interface.
It bears repeating: Google Chrome OS is a preliminary announcement of a product no-one has seen yet and which Google isn’t planning on showing for at least a year. Assuming on that basis that the market is about to undergo a sea change is just plain crazy.