Google Chrome OS and the Open Source Desktop

Given the sharing between the major free desktops like KDE and GNOME, any promising ideas in Chrome OS will also be borrowed by the major desktops.


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Remember vaporware? That's the name that used to be applied to software that was described in glittering generalities before it was written. It wasn't a compliment.

But, after reading all the speculation in the last few days, I'm convinced that vaporware is a term that we need to revive and apply to the Google Chrome Operating System. Without some perspective, we can't even begin to consider how the announcement might affect the free software world.

For anyone with a long memory, the initial announcement for Chrome OS was a classic piece of vaporware. The code won't be available until "later this year," and the final release will happen in the second half of 2010 and be targeted at netbooks.

Yet that didn't stop Google executives Sundar Pichai and Linus Upson from describing Chrome OS as the hottest thing since the iPhone. It will be "lightweight," Pichai and Upson decreed, with a "minimal" interface, and built for "speed, simplicity, and security." But the real lack of concrete information was revealed by the continual repetition of the key point that Chrome will be an operating system based on web applications – without any specifics about exactly what that will mean.

So far, the only concrete information is that Google is working with major hardware and software manufacturers like Adobe, ASUS, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Toshiba. Even there, we don't know what level of involvement is implied by "working with."

The blunt truth is that we have no idea how Chrome OS will look or perform. Without that information, we haven't a clue how successfully it will compete, either.

The most we can do is look at such things as Google's past performance, its reputation in the free software community, the market for netbooks and web apps, and the probable responses by existing free software vendors like Ubuntu's Canonical.

All these considerations raise sweeping questions about Chrome OS's probability of success -- questions that, by the time Chrome OS is actually available, are sure to be obsolete, or replaced by other ones.

Google's track record

For many analysts outside the free software world, the announcement of Chrome OS is a sign that a competitor that could match Microsoft in reputation and clout had finally emerged. Others with free software said much the same, and are preparing to cheer GNU/Linux on to victory under Google's banner.

The trouble is, contrary to the spam in your Trash folder, size isn't everything. While Google has all the resources to compete against its proprietary and free software rivals, in the past, it has not used those resources as strategically as it might.

So far, Google has showed itself to be a first-rate development shop with projects like Gears or the Chrome Browser. However, it has been substantially less successful at marketing and monetizing projects. While projects like Google Earth or Street View or even Android attract all sorts of media attention, Google has yet to wean itself away from its dependency on search ads for its main revenue.

Considering this record, I have to ask: Does anyone at Google know how to compete in the marketplace, let alone go toe-to-toe against Microsoft? Can Google hire experts who can? Are its executives even aware of the need?

Google's FOSS community reputation

Another aspect that Google might need to overcome is its mixed reputation in the free and open source software (FOSS) world.

On the one hand, Google has released the code for many of its projects, and its annual Summer of Code mentoring program has benefited free software projects tremendously.

On the other hand, you don't have to search very far before you find complaints about Google doing most of the real development before releasing the code, or trying to strictly control projects once they are public.

For instance, in one well-publicized case last a year, a small project called Clipperz that was using Google's software repositories tried to use the Affero General Public License, a FOSS license specifically designed for web applications. Google responded by denying the project server space. Apparently, Google was not going to tolerate the extension of FOSS ideas into an area that it still hoped to control and perhaps monetize.

Admittedly, Chrome OS will need to appeal to ordinary users. All the same, Google's reputation in the FOSS community matters because the corporation is hoping to receive some assistance from the FOSS community. Also, many of the early adopters will probably be from the community as well.

Moreover, as the new entry in the market, Chrome OS could benefit from being seen as community-oriented. If Google is seen as manipulating FOSS entirely for its own interests, then how will its image be any better than that of its monopolistic competitors?

The netbook market

In mid-2009, releasing a netbook product may seem a reasonable goal. However, whether the idea will seem equally sensible in the second half of 2010 is another matter.

For one thing, there's the timing. In the second half of 2010, the global economy may just be emerging from the current recession. That may not be the time to launch a new product no matter what your resources are. A year from now, will most people and businesses still be nursing their existing hardware rather than replacing it?

Even more importantly, a year from now, the netbook market may have hit saturation level. At the very least, it will be a very well developed market, with the major players well defined. Such a market is much harder to break into than one that is just emerging. Is there any reason to think that Chrome OS will be so compelling that it will overcome this market, the way that the iPhone did in mobile devices?

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Tags: Linux, Google, Microsoft, Gnome, KDE

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