On July 7th , at around midnight, the official Google blog announced the next phase in the company’s plan for global domination. (I’m half-joking). They announced the development of the Google Chrome Operating System, the follow-up and natural extension of the Chrome Internet browser Google released a year ago. Chrome OS will be an open-source operating system that will begin arriving on netbooks sometime in 2010.
For the uninitiated, netbooks are small, lightweight and compact laptop computers. This class of PCs generally feature smaller processors and hard drives then their bigger counterparts. However, they are ideal for travelers who mainly need Internet access and don’t want to lug around a 17-inch Dell boat anchor to do so. Hence the name: “netbooks.” Because these computers are essentially designed for Internet use, they generally run Windows XP or sometimes even Linux. During the ongoing global recession, netbook sales have skyrocketed due to their lower costs (most netbooks cost between $200-$400) and the market is currently booming (certain reports suggest a 260% growth in sales just this year).
Google’s foray into the operating system market has largely been seen as inevitable for quite some time. While Google’s # 1 priority has been and always will be its search engine, they have slowly but surely begun to creep into other areas with programs like Gmail and other Google apps. Last year Google released Chrome, a browser meant to compete with Internet Explorer and Firefox. Chrome received mostly positive reviews and has gained a 1.8% market share of the worldwide Internet browser usage since its release in September 2008. At the same time Chrome was released, Google also debuted Android, an operating system for celular phones. Android was designed to compete with the iPhone, Blackberry, Palm and Windows mobile telephone operating systems used on smartphones.
So it didn’t seem that much of a stretch to think that Google would enter the operating system market at some point. Microsoft’s Windows OS has dominated the personal computing market for years. The only two competitors they have faced are Apple and Linux. I’m sure most people are familiar with the Mac vs. PC debate by now, thanks largely to those cheeky Apple commercials with John Hodgman and Justin Long, and I won’t go into that. For those not in the know, Linux is an open source operating system, meaning that it is free and anyone with the prerequisite know-how can take the operating system and modify it however they want. As a result, there are thousands of different versions of Linux available for free. While this is one of Linux’s greatest strengths, it is also one of its greatest weaknesses because there has never been a unified attempt to make one version that works best for everyone.
Enter Google. Chrome OS will be an operating system based on Linux and made primarily for netbooks. So far HP, Acer, Adobe, Texas Instruments and others have all voiced their support for Chrome. The OS is said to boot up in seconds and be competely impervious to viruses and other security flaws present in PCs. Chrome will focus on the web. The goal is for Chrome to be extremely lightweight, essentially just a shell of an operating system that can get you online in seconds, so you can use Web-based (sometimes referred to as “cloud”) applications, including programs like Google Docs and Gmail that run completely on the Internet.
This presents a unique set of problems for Google to overcome. For example, what happens when you’re in a location without Wi-Fi, like an airplane? Without an Internet connection, your Chrome-based netbook essentially becomes a paperweight. Undoubtedly, netbook makers will try and counter this by selling cheap netbooks with 3G wireless cards built in, providing Internet wherever you can get a cell signal. Privacy issues also arise. If you are using Chrome OS, all your documents, photos, music, etc. will be stored not on your hard drive, but on Google’s servers (a.k.a. “the cloud”) where anything can happen. Google could concieveably know everything about what we do on our Chrome-based computers. Competition will also be an issue: don’t expect Microsoft to sit quiet during all this. They will undoubtedly start a smear campaign to point out all the flaws in Chrome. Furthermore, Windows 7 has purposefully been designed to be netbook friendly and will undoubtedly be a hit when it’s released this fall.
The announcement of Chrome also creates one very important question: What is Google’s ultimate goal? Do they really expect to bring down Microsoft and Apple? Realistically, that’s about as likely as me writing an entire column without mentioning the iPhone. While I’m sure Chrome will be a serious effort, many are questioning if the OS isn’t Google simply trying to make a statement. The company has said they believe Web-based applications are the future of personal computing. Is Chrome OS nothing more than an attempt to keep Microsoft on its toes and force them to compete by creating an operating system more conducive to running cloud applications? Even if Chrome ultimately fails to take off, Google will have pushed the entire industry toward Web-based apps. Perhaps their ultimate goal is to have a plethora of online applications, available via an iTunes-esque app store, that could run through the Chrome browser on Windows, Mac or Linux.
Of course, that is the ultimate cynic’s view. When it comes down to it, Google just wants to see ads. Chrome OS allows the company to collect even more data about its users and slap Google ads on everything you do. Working on a doc? See an ad. Looking at your digital photos? See an ad. Is Google really trying to change the industry for the better, or do they really just want you to know that you can bid on a cheap new iPhone 3G S at Swoopo.com?
Ben Wagner is a tech correspondent for Rhombus. Surprisingly, he somehow managed to complete an entire article without mentioning Twitter.