Google Chrome OS and the Open Source Desktop: Page 2

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These are questions that any company would need to consider. However, for a product based on FOSS, they are especially important. GNU/Linux operating systems were initially successful in the netbook market, but, to a large extent, they seem to have been driven out by the introduction of rival Windows products. If that trend continues, then the market reception of Chrome OS products could be especially rocky.

The appeal of web apps

One of the few concrete pieces of information about Chrome OS is that it will be built around web applications. Possibly, Chrome OS will be exactly what is needed to make Google Apps successful at last. However, possibly Google is unable to see the market for its own reflection?

Web applications are popular among developers because of the challenges involved in their coding. Technophiles like them (or used to) because they are new. But among the general users, their success is more mixed.

Most people have probably tried web applications. Their lack of features, though, to say nothing of concerns about accessibility and privacy, have kept web apps from being as widely adopted as pundits predicted.

Unless Chrome OS includes features that can overcome these concerns, then the very web-centricity that is meant as selling point could keep people from using it. While Chrome OS is being developed, can Google fix its web apps so that they have the features of KOffice, let alone OpenOffice.org? Can Chrome OS provide security features to reduce privacy concerns? Could the right mixture of local and web apps satisfy people? Do users even want to rely on web apps? Contrary to Pichai and Upson's assumptions, whether millions of users exist who prefer web apps is not at all certain. The real market for web apps may be far smaller.

FOSS strikes back

Yet another unknown is how existing GNU/Linux distributions are going to react to Chrome OS. You can be sure, though, that leading commercial distributions like Canonical's Ubuntu will have strategies in place long before Chrome OS is released.

The free desktop is currently undergoing major innovation, so factoring into a possible shift to web apps will hardly be a major stretch. Moreover, if other distributions allow users to work easily with any web apps while Chrome OS encourages the use of Google Apps, then they could have a distinct advantage simple because they offer choice.

In fact, considerable work has already been done in integrating web apps into upcoming versions of KDE 4. These include plans to allow widgets to be exchanged between computers in KDE 4.4, as well as integrated access to online resources in applications like Amarok and DigiKam, and the social desktop, that will help put KDE users in touch with those nearest them, or who share the same hardware.

These ideas are just as experimental as a desktop based on web applications, and whether they will be successful remains to be seen. However, given that they will be integrated into existing applications, and focus on the social web rather than on applications, they are probably easier for most users to accept than Chrome OS's apparent plans.

And, considering how ideas flow between the major free desktops, with KDE adopting them, GNOME will likely have them soon as well, particularly if they prove popular. For that matter, any promising ideas in Chrome OS will also be borrowed by the major desktops.

In other words, Chrome OS will probably not be nearly as revolutionary as its announcements imply. When the first Chrome OS netbook rolls off the production line, it is likely to be greeted by existing FOSS products that match it feature for feature.

Just another player

Predicting the future from the past or present is notoriously unreliable. France tried that in the 1930s and produced the Maginot Line, only to have its supposedly impregnable defenses overrun in days by the new tactics of the German blitzkrieg.

However, based on Google's past performance and the potential problems of the marketplace, I can say that Chrome OS is far from a guaranteed success. Entering a new market is never easy for any corporation, and Google has yet to show the agility that suggests it can do so successfully, even when conditions are favorable. Probably the real key to success will be Google's ability to encourage its partners in hardware to market and promote new products.

Yet even with industry-wide cooperation, the success of Chrome OS is far from assured. It seems likely be that Chrome OS will be far less original than the vaporware reports suggest. Google can undoubtedly bankroll it indefinitely, but a sense of strategy is even more important than funds.

Far from revolutionizing the netbook market, Chrome OS may be destined to be simply another player -- perhaps one occupying a particular niche, and perhaps not even the most successful one. At this point, saying anything more is impossible.

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Tags: Linux, Google, Microsoft, Gnome, KDE

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