By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 11:55 pm
Here’s one of those breaking stories that’s stunning at first–until you think about it, whereupon it feels like it was always inevitable. Google announced tonight that it’s working on an operating system for PCs, turning a hypothetical scenario that’s been around for years into reality. Almost by definition, it’s the most direct attack possible on the Microsoft hegemony, since it puts Google into competition with Windows itself.
Google isn’t revealing much in the way of specifics, other than that the OS is an open-source project based on its Chrome browser with a Linux kernel, and that it’s working with multiple hardware manufacturers to bring it to x86- and ARM-based netbooks in the second half of next year. It says the goal is to build an OS that boots in seconds and runs Web apps really well.
Like many big Google announcements (such as the unleashing of Chrome itself last September) this one prompts more questions than it answers. Such as the first eleven that popped into my head…
1. Why would Google do this? The blog post says it’s to make computer users happy and productive:
We hear a lot from our users and their message is clear — computers need to get better. People want to get to their email instantly, without wasting time waiting for their computers to boot and browsers to start up. They want their computers to always run as fast as when they first bought them. They want their data to be accessible to them wherever they are and not have to worry about losing their computer or forgetting to back up files. Even more importantly, they don’t want to spend hours configuring their computers to work with every new piece of hardware, or have to worry about constant software updates. And any time our users have a better computing experience, Google benefits as well by having happier users who are more likely to spend time on the Internet.
Very noble. But ithe digs at Microsoft are unmistakable. I think it’s in Google’s blood to go after markets that Microsoft dominates, introducing alternatives that are simpler, Webbier, and free. Hence Gmail, Google Docs, and Chrome–and now Chrome OS.
For a company that’s Microsoft’s greatest rival, Google is currently profoundly dependent on Microsoft, since the vast majority of people who use Google services and software do so via a Microsoft operating system. By developing its own operating system, Google gets a shot at having a direct relationship with consumers in a way that only Microsoft and Apple do today.
2. Why Chrome, Not Android? There’s been scuttlebutt about netbooks running Android, but Chrome OS is an extension of the company’s browser, not its mobile OS. Google addresses this in the blog post:
Android was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks. Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the web, and is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems. While there are areas where Google Chrome OS and Android overlap, we believe choice will drive innovation for the benefit of everyone, including Google.
Sounds reasonable. But by building an OS based on a browser, Google is, essentially, making the browser an autonomous environment that renders OSes like Windows and Android superfluous. That’s a way more powerful idea than putting a phone OS on a little notebook computer.
3. Why would a PC manufacturer want it? I can’t imagine that any major one looks at Chrome OS as an opportunity to dump Windows–these Chrome netbooks will almost certainly be released as complements to Windows machines, not replacements. Still, I can think of lots of reasons why a computer company might like the idea of an OS from Google, especially for low-cost computers. The low cost of netbooks is making it tough for Microsoft to realize the profit margin it’s accustomed to getting, which is causing hassles for PC makers and consumers. Google isn’t saying how much it plans to charge for Chrome OS, but if Android is any indication it may simply give it away, giving PC builders a chance to sell netbooks that are both cheaper and more profitable than Windows models. And Chrome OS will run on ARM chips as well as x86 ones, giving manufacturers the opportunity to bypass Intel and AMD if they feel like it.
4. Just how Web-based can (and should) an OS be? Google says that “most of the user experience takes place on the web,” talks about data being available anywhere and safe from loss, and says that software updates are a pain. All of that would seem to suggest that the portion of Chrome OS that lives on the netbook will be as minimal as possible. It’s a fascinating idea, and a continuation of a trend that’s already in progress. But just how useful will a Chrome OS netbook be when you can’t get online? Even if it supports Google Gears and therefore has some ability to run offline-capable Web apps such as Gmail, it’s not clear how a computer with a largely Web-based interface can be completely useful when you’re on a twelve-hour overseas flight on a plane with no Wi-Fi. I’m guessing that Google expects that by the time Chrome OS netbooks ship, there will be both more good offline apps and fewer places where there’s no connectivity.
5. What’s the deal with hardware? Chrome OS is based on a Linux kernel, which will help with support for printers and other devices. But there’s plenty of stuff which consumers want which has no official Linux support. Like iPods and iPhones, for instance. Will Google make them work? Are the manufacturers of those products going to be excited enough about Chrome OS to write drivers?
6. What’s the deal with software? Chrome OS will run Web apps. So do Windows and OS X–but they run scads of traditional software, too. Chrome OS is based on Linux–does that mean it’ll run Linux apps? Or would that be cheating?
7. What’s the UI going to be like? I know a lot of Windows, OS X, and Linux users who don’t want to admit this, but all modern operating systems have interfaces that are more alike than different. The differences are largely in the elegance of the implementation. Will Chrome have a Taskbar/Dock equivalent? How about folders? Are there going to be any startling fresh ideas, in the way that the Chrome browser dispensed with much of the clutter of other browsers?
8. What are the security implications? The Chrome browser isn’t an impenetrable fortress, but you gotta thank that Google has a shot at writing an OS that’s less likely to be rife with holes than Windows (or, for that matter, OS X). I’m not sure if the fact that the company doesn’t bring up security as an issue in the blog post means anything. (Actually, the blog post does brag about Chrome OS’s security–I just missed it. But I’m still curious just how safe it’ll be in the real world.)
9. Will consumers buy a Google netbook? At first, it seemed like other versions of Linux had a shot at being popular netbook OSes, but it didn’t pan out and even Ubuntu has not yet solved the “Would I recommend this to my grandma?” problem. For all its downsides, Windows is the world’s most familiar operating system, with the largest library of apps and broadest hardware support. Google’s blog post sets the bar high in terms of ambition for what it’s trying to bring to consumers. It’ll have to deliver in spades to make Chrome OS netbooks truly appealing alternatives to Windows systems in the real world.
10. Just how serious is Google about this? Google Apps is nifty, but doesn’t seem to have put a noticeable dent in Microsoft Office’s market share. The Chrome browser is impressive, but the company hasn’t even managed to get it onto OS X yet. When Google products are new, it’s often hard to tell whether the company sees them as core to its future or as quirky experiments. We don’t yet know enough about Chrome OS to know whether it’s the next Gmail–or the next Knol.
11. How will Microsoft react? Even if Chrome OS turns out to be one of the most massive hits that the tech world has ever seen, it’s not going to crush Windows anytime soon. I’m assuming that Microsoft is intrigued but not alarmed by tonight’s news, and that it’s been expecting something along these lines. We don’t know much about its Midori project, but it’s supposedly a post-Windows, Web-based OS–and might form the basis for Microsoft’s answer to Chrome OS. Assuming it needs one.
Okay, I’m out of questions for now. Sounds like we have at least a year to ask more of ’em. I’d love to hear your initial reaction to all this…