The Other Shoe Drops

July 8, 2009

Yesterday evening, on the Official Google Blog, Google ended a long period of speculation by announcing the development of the Google Chrome Operating System [Chrome OS].  It has been suggested many times that this is a step Google was considering; the release of the Chrome browser and the Android operating system for mobile devices added fuel to the fire.

Google, as a company, makes its money by selling advertising on the Web, and thus has a clear interest in increasing the use of the Web, and the number of people using it.  The newly-announced Chrome OS fits right into that framework:

Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS. We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web.

The Chrome OS will initially be available on netbooks, the small, inexpensive laptop computers that have been a big hit in the marketplace:

Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks. Later this year we will open-source its code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010.

But it is clear that Google has larger ambitions for this project.  It will run on more than one CPU architecture, and is designed to be a complete, Web-centric operating system.  As the quote above mentions, it will be open source, and based on a Linux OS kernel:

Google Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips and we are working with multiple OEMs to bring a number of netbooks to market next year. The software architecture is simple — Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel.

For someone who uses mainly Internet, or cloud-based, applications (such as Google Mail and Docs, or Facebook), this potentially is quite an attractive proposition.  Even with a full-blown graphic desktop, such as KDE or GNOME, Linux runs faster than any current version of Windows on a given machine.  With a graphical interface tailored to supporting the browser, this advantage should be substantially increased, meaning that a Chrome OS PC could require considerably less in the way of hardware resources than a Windows PC, giving it a potential price advantage.

Since Microsoft is the dominant supplier of operating systems for the PC, with Windows, it’s clear that any success that Google achieves with the Chrome OS will come largely at the expense of Microsoft.  Probably more important, Microsoft’s other cash cow is its PC application business, encompassing products like Microsoft Office.  These applications, at present, run on conventional PCs under Windows.  To the extent that users adopt the Chrome OS, Microsoft will lose customers from both its OS division and its applications division.  So, if Microsoft thinks that the Chrome OS will be successful, it has a difficult choice: to eat the loss in market share, or to make its applications run on other platforms, which would probably damage its near-monopoly in PC operating systems.

Even this is not the worst bit of potential bad news for Microsoft, however.  One of the keys to Microsoft’s succcess has been to encourage a companion ecosystem of third-party Windows developers.  The typical user, after all, doesn’t really care about operating systems; he or she buys a computer to run applications.  (It was the introduction of the VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet applications that really launched the PC market in the first place.)  But Google is in a position to offer something even more seductive to developers:

For application developers, the web is the platform. All web-based applications will automatically work and new applications can be written using your favorite web technologies. And of course, these apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux thereby giving developers the largest user base of any platform.

In other words, if developers write for the Chrome environment, they can create a single application that can run on essentially every personal computer in the world.  The idea of “write once, run everywhere” has been a goal for Internet developers for years – it is what Sun’s Java project was aimed at, for example.   And, since Chrome is based on a Linux kernel, the range of potential hardware is staggering; a quick check of the Debian Linux “Ports” page shows that Linux is available for the following CPU architectures:

  • Intel x86
  • Motorola 68K
  • Sun SPARC
  • Alpha (originally from DEC)
  • Power PC
  • ARM
  • PA-RISC (HP)
  • Itanium
  • AMD64
  • IBM System/390

Although I grant you that it’s not that likely that someone will buy a S/390 mainframe to run Google mail, the reality is that the Linux OS kernel is available to run on all these architectures right now.  (Actually, these are ports of the complete Debian environment, which includes much more than just the kernel.)   Developers also have probably noticed that Apple has done quite well, with OS-X, using a somewhat similar approach: a graphical user interface built on a BSD Unix kernel.  If we add to this a certain degree of disillusionment with Microsoft among developers, owing to the Vista debacle and to Microsoft’s trying to muscle in on their business (ask the anti-virus vendors), it’s possible Google might get a reasonably receptive audience.

Microsoft, of course, has a mountain of cash, and is not going to go down without a fight.  But this will definitely be a challenge to them, as pointed out in the New York Times article about the announcement:

The company likely saw netbooks as a unique opportunity to challenge Microsoft, said Larry Augustin, a prominent Silicon Valley investor who serves on the board of a number of open-source software companies.

“Market changes happen at points of discontinuity,” Mr. Augustin said. “And that’s what you have with netbooks and a market that has moved to mobile devices.”

I find the timing of the announcement interesting, too.  It comes at a time when Microsoft is already committed to a release timetable for the next version of Windows, Windows 7.  Even if Windows 7 is a success, I think it’s unlikely that Microsoft can come up with anything to match what Google is proposing in the same sort of time frame.

It will be interesting to watch.

Update, Thursday, July 9, 10:45

Google now has posted a brief FAQ about this on the Google Chrome blog.  It confirms that Chrome OS will be open source, and free.

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