Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Google’s Chrome Operating System

I saw on the news today that Google is reportedly preparing to release a PC O/S in 2H 2010. Their goal is clearly two-fold: as a direct challenge to their rival Microsoft, and as a platform to further unify users of their suites of applications like GMail and the Chrome browser. They’re using an “open” application model, much like with their cell-phone O/S. I predict (and my prediction is based on speculation, not hands-on experience with the O/S, so don’t go changing your 401K investments because of this blog) that it will be about as popular with consumers as Linux (which is to say, not very), that it will develop a niche following, but will be completely rejected by businesses.

“But Mike,” you say, shaking your head in bewilderment, your brow furrowed at this display of abject ignorance, “Google is the world’s most popular search engine and Gmail has been absolutely HUGE. Why wouldn’t Google be successful with a PC O/S if they put their collective minds to it?”

I have several reasons that I’ve come to this conclusion. They include:

1. Inertia – the PC industry, and its users, likes to keep moving in more-or-less the same direction. And as much as people like to complain about Vista, people keep buying it. Sure, sales may be off for various reasons, but it’s not as if there’s a huge move by consumers to switch to Macs or Linux or something.
2. Terms of Service – Google has some master-plan, I have no doubt. And from the look of their terms of service for Gmail and the Chrome browser, that plan involves world domination. This is a problem for them, I believe, in terms of business adoption. I know of at least one company that outlawed the Chrome browser on its network because the terms of service gave such broad rights to Google. GMail, likewise, seems to cause concern for some of those who read the terms, despite the very broad adoption.

Now, granted, I haven’t seen the TOS for the Chrome O/S, so how do I know that Google will include broad rights and leeway for themselves? I don’t. But I can see Google’s track-record, and they always give themselves an array of privileges when they provide a service or technology to the public.
3. History – Google’s various apps don’t seem to be very widely-adopted so far. I’m not sure why – they seem to do the job, they’re just not very popular. Based on that, I feel good about predicting similar results for the O/S.
4. Complexity – a PC Operating System is a complex thing. If it weren’t, Microsoft would have made a picture-perfect version of Windows eons ago. I’m sure they’d like to. But the glue that connects the hardware layer to the software layer in the PC, supporting all of the peripherals, drivers, installs, uninstalls, updates, and other processes, along with all of the security stuff, on top of a stable GUI that’s simple and pleasant to use… that’s a tall order. I’m not saying Google can’t pull it off, I’m just saying that I’ll be surprised if they pull it off so well that people are ready to jump ship on the Windows version du jour.

“But Mike,” you say again, with an indulgent smirk, “it’s likely to be free. People are going to leap at the chance to get a Netbook computer for $300 minus what they currently pay for Windows.” Ok, granted. In fact, I’ll say it again – granted. I’ll grant that what Google may end up doing is creating a device of some sort that’s so intuitive and easy to use and inexpensive that everybody will want one. It won’t be a PC, per se – and I don’t believe that it will replace the family computer – but it may be that there’s a significant market for it anyway. I just don’t think so. A computer that’s too small to be a complete desktop replacement and is focused on web browsing and smallish apps… that sounds like a smartphone to me. There’s already a market for those, and Google even makes one.

Plus, again, there’s the TOS thing. If Google stays true to form, the terms of service will result in extremely limited business adoption. Business sales equal volume for PCs and similar technologies. I’m going to argue (okay, I’m already arguing) that a niche product like the Netbook (which, from the figures I’m finding online, only have about 20% the adoption rate of laptops) combined with little or no commercial sales is going to result in a product with a marginal impact on the computing world.

On the other hand, it’s always possible that Google could alter their GMAil terms of service to require all users to switch to their new O/S as part of their master plan for world domination.

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