Google Chrome OS - Let's be reasonable

Posted by GradysGhost on Jul 11, 2009 3:54 AM EDT
Linuxphilia; By Ryan Jung
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The tech world is full of zealots and fanboys who will say pretty much anything to draw attention to their OS/browser/etc. of choice. Let's look at this logically, level-headed.

Two days ago, Google published this on their blog:

We're announcing a new project that's a natural extension of Google Chrome — the Google Chrome Operating System. It's our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be.

Naturally, the tech world goes crazy. I've seen people say such polarized things as "Today marks the knee of the great curve of Microsoft's decline" and "Google's vision is meaningless to consumers." I've seen people say that this is just what the world needs to push Linux into the spotlight and spread its market share, but alongside those, I've seen people criticize the proposed operating system as a direct affront to Linux. In truth, the tech world is full of zealots and fanboys who will say pretty much anything to draw attention to their OS/browser/etc. of choice. Let's look at this logically, level-headed.

Before we can begin to decide how this affects the computing community at large, we have to define what it is. That said, here are some basic facts about the project according to what Google published. It is

  • Open-source
  • Lightweight
  • Targeted at netbooks
  • Focused on "speed, simplicity, and security"
  • Capable of booting and being on the net "in seconds"
  • Running Linux at the core
  • Running a new window system (not X)
  • Running the webkit-based browser Chrome on top of that
  • Not Android

Let's tackle the two obvious questions.

What does this mean for Microsoft?

Quick answer: who knows? Certainly, Microsoft's long-standing campaign of deceit, condescension, and failure to meet promises is beginning to fail them, especially in the light of Apple's advertisement campaigns in the past few years which have been an unabashed, straightforward attack on Microsoft, even if they were largely a heap of fibs themselves. At the end of 2006, it would appear that Microsoft had roughly 94% of the market depending on how you measure it (and if Wikipedia's sources are accurate), while Mac claimed 5-6% and the various Linux distributions carried less than 1% of the pie. At the end of June 2009, those same sources show various Windows OSes occupying a little less than 88% of the market, Mac's share increasing to roughly 9-11%, with Linux still dangling in at a little bit less than 1% (but still more than its previous "roughly 1%").

Chrome OS fits a niche market: the netbook. These are those (almost annoyingly) small computers that are meant to have only enough processing power to put a person on the Internet and do some basic word processing. They are definitely helpful for the technologically disinclined. A person wanting to actually accomplish something impressive will look elsewhere, but netbooks definitely have a good reason to exist. I'm sure that Chrome OS will run quite nicely there. It's a niche that Microsoft will have a hard time filling, even with Windows 7, which is intended to do just that.

Win7 requires 16-20 GB of free space on the hard drive, and that's ignoring any filespace left over for other software. Microsoft Office will then chew up another 1.5 to 3 gigs depending on how much of that software you need. Tack on the high video card requirements and you have a stodgy, slow, and ugly operating system that devours more of the disk than necessary.

Most of the affordable netbooks have much larger disks than that, so the wasted space may not mean as much as it used to. However, the fact that Windows 7 sets up automatic defrags, even on hardware such as solid state drives where the act of defragmentation is both unneccessary and physically damaging, makes it a dangerous operating system to run on a netbook without doing some major tweaking first -- tweaking that the kind of people who create the netbook market probably won't know to do.

So what's worse for Microsoft, really? Is it really Chrome OS that will do them in, or is it Microsoft's own horrendous software? Besides, what Chrome OS proposes to be is something even less than what many Linux distributions already are. Where Ubuntu's most recent bit of awesomeness -- Ubuntu Netbook Remix --offers a full desktop experience with a complete productivity suite, an IM client that works across practically all chat protocols, and where other common net-based software is about three clicks away (blogging clients, microblogging clients, casual games, etc.) all in less than 1 GB, Chrome OS will only offer a browser that isn't very extensible yet. The Chrome browser may execute JavaScript faster than anything else right now, but there are tons of standards that it still doesn't support, and a person's web browsing experience will be less "correct" there than with Firefox 3.5 on any OS at all. Windows 7 can't fill any of those bills.

It looks like it could affect Microsoft in a couple of ways, though.

First, it might expose Linux to more people. Don't let me confuse you with that statement and that emphasis. What I mean is that it will succeed. Trust me. Google has enough money to create muscle in the market. It'll be popular to some degree or another, even if it's only within this niche netbook market. But even though it's Linux-based, and even though it's open source, I sincerely doubt that the terms "Linux" and "open source" will have anything to do with their advertisement plan. They will confuse customers that might otherwise be willing to buy into the concept.

Second, Google's tactic of late has been to simply undercut Microsoft's pricing, which is easy to do given the outrageous dollar value Microsoft places on their operating systems. Being that COS will be Linux and therefore open source, undercutting that cost is almost expected. Linux already does this, but has little to no advertisement behind it, and to tell a potential user that there are hundreds of Linux OSes to choose from doesn't exactly help win over the hearts of the masses. COS will provide a solution to both of these problems, and that will definitely help reduce Microsoft's monopolistic, anti-competitive hold on the computing world as a whole.

So where does that leave Linux?

Linux has, up until recently, been a "geek" thing, and that's a mildly unfair stigma that has only been slightly loosened by more recent, "user-friendly" distros like the Ubuntus, including Linux Mint and other derivatives. This will not change. I keep hearing people make very bold claims that this is either really, really good or really, really bad for Linux on the whole. But one of the founding principles of Linux is freedom of choice. If you wish to not run COS, there is nothing stopping you from using an Ubuntu or a Gentoo or Fedora or Sabayon or PCLOS or any other distribution. Hell, you could even run Windows 7 on it if you so choose. One's decision about what OS to run is exactly that -- one's own decision. The introduction of COS to your miles-long list of options only changes things inasmuch as your list would then become miles long plus one.

In fact, Linux has a chance to improve greatly. Having a popular Linux OS on the market backed by an unbelievably filthy rich corporation provides incentive for hardware manufacturers to release more official and better hardware drivers for the Linux platform. I'm not complaining about the quality of existing drivers, only the lack of drivers for a great deal of hardware. It's one of the main reasons why people quit Linux before they really begin. They can't get audio or their video card's driver can't send X up to the right screen resolution or they really need better Bluetooth support. Granted, Linux has better hardware support than Windows in most cases, at least so far as having it ready at install-time is concerned, but overall it lacks in this department. That's not Linux's fault. You can legitimately blame Microsoft for this. Their long-time practice of colluding with hardware manufacturers has been so deeply entrenched in the technology community that special words have been coined to describe it. Consider "Wintel" for instance, to describe the Brangelina-style marriage of Microsoft to Intel. Having a Linux-based OS in the mainstream could help facilitate a long-needed divorce.

In short, Chrome OS isn't going to change the world. It barely even has a home in the small portion of the market that it intends to occupy. Perhaps it will occupy it, maybe completely. If you consider that the only other major OS suitable for netbooks is not as suitable as Microsoft would lead you to believe, you've got a clear win for Google. But if you think that perhaps Windows 7 is more capable on a netbook than Google's offering, then there's a clear win for Microsoft.

Only one thing's for certain. Microsoft now has real competition, and it's been a long time since they've had to react to that. I guarantee that Microsoft cannot simply purchase Google, continuing their procedure of Assimilate and Deprecate that they've become adept at when facing opposition. And that is definitely a good thing.

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