Why Google's Chrome OS Is Not in Your Future

Google caused a flurry of excitement last night when it revealed it would convert its Chrome browser into an operating system meant for netbooks. A chorus of OMG's burst from the tech blog network. This is a "clear shot in Microsoft's direction," said one blogger at ZDNet, calling it a "big style" game-changer before popping a few Halcion and trying to calm the hell down. Some bloggers like Jason Kottke were more measured, content to say "I called it!" and talk about how the Chrome OS is representative of the direction of computing. It's not. 

Picture 1

Chrome will probably make a neat little OS experiment. It may even make its way onto a netbook or two. Still, this isn't a flaming poop-bag on Microsoft's doorstep, and it doesn't bother Apple much, either. That's because as far as operating systems go, the humble Web browser is a piece of garbage.

Yes, we're slowly migrating to a world where lots of our junk is stored on servers. But we're held back by our broadband infrastructure, which at present, is one of the worst in the civilized world. (Don't believe me? Read this.) Sometimes ditching old, vestigal technology is cool, as when Apple left behind the floppy drive and the serial port when it built the first iMac. But other times, the world just isn't ready; that's why you don't see any hydrogen cars in your parking lot, even though we've been told for the last 20 years that they're on the way.

There's another problem. No one uses Chrome. Depending on who you ask, its marketshare is between 1.5% and 2.5%, dwarfed even by also-ran browsers like Apple's Safari. If you were in charge of product development for a netbook-maker, how comfortable would you be with putting an operating system on your device that only 2% of your prospective customers have ever seen or used? Sure, they recognize the Google brand name. But how many Zunes has that sold for Microsoft?

Here's the other thing: why use Google's OS when it's cheap and easy to build a Linux-based system yourself? If Michael Arrington and his CrunchPad gang can do it, then I'd venture that pretty much any hardware maker can. Skinning it and customizing it will have to happen anyway, otherwise competitors won't be able to distinguish your shiny black Google-based netbook from your competitor's, so why not play it safe and homegrow your system, just in case Chrome evolves in some way that ceases to be in your interest? 

Another problem with the Chrome-as-invader concept is that browser's don't really do peripherals. What if you want to pull pictures off your digital camera with your netbook, or sync your iPhone to it? Then what? As ArsTechnica points out, it's possible "that [Google] has decided that people simply don't need much in the way of peripherals." As netbooks get burlier and faster, we're going to expect them to do more stuff, not less. Not to mention that Web-based operating systems -- and this goes for all of them, not just Google -- rely essentially on bookmarking to manage files and sites. And bookmarking, as much as you dress it with hi-res icons and window-drawers and panes, is still a crappy way to superintend your workflow.

Luckily for us, none of these Web OSs are going to make a dent in personal computing as we know it today; they'll be here, sure, but in ancillary contexts. (Microsoft, breathe easy.) That's because much of the gear market we get, as consumers, is nerd trickle-down. In the same way that our commercial planes use technology birthed at NASA, and our cars have transmissions whose forebears ran the Indy, our computers are commoditized versions of big boy tools used by engineering PhDs and developers. Tech companies build what they like. And there isn't a damn developer or engineer out there that would ever use a Chrome OS machine more than 10% of the time.

Don't believe me? Maybe I've been reductive in describing the chain of tech product development. An intermediary stop between the technorati and the common man is the corporate enterprise. Companies have had the opportunity to convert to thin client networks for the better part of two decades, and yet the chances are that wherever you work, you have an actual PC, not a dumbed down Web slave, sitting on your desk. That's because if, as Jason Kottke says, the end-user's definition of an "operating system" is "an interface between hardware and user," well, the Web is still a relatively crappy interface, regardless of the infrastructure problems I mention above.

Web apps like Gmail have made artful use of JavaScript to be more responsive and desktop-like than Web apps ever have; since JavaScript runs locally on your browser, it can detect your keystrokes (HTML can't) and it responds to your clicks quickly (HTML doesn't). But the use of WebKit browsers and prototype-based languages is only really good for building a simulacrum of the desktop experience, not a replacement. Their real point of leverage is universality, but universality is usually the last driver of innovation; only when someone owns an environment completely and can seriously monetize it does it get good.

Then there's the question of future hardware. As netbooks get faster chips and come packed with more hard-drive space and RAM, users are going to want them to become mobile versions of their primary PC: full of all their music, movies, photos and various formats of documents and presentations. Managing and manipulating all that junk is not a job for a browser; it's a job for more object-oriented OSes. Basing an entire suite of apps on Web languages is fine when the apps are extremely simple, as with the Palm Pre, whose webOS relies on JavaScript. But as Apple knows, if you intend your device to have any kind of heavy-lifting power down the road, you use a full-blown desktop OS. That's why the iPhone relies on applications written in Objective-C, the same language developers use to program for the Mac. In one respect, calling the Google Chrome OS a "game-changer" is a little bit like betting against the brains at Apple; based on the last 10 years of computing, that's not too prescient.

So what is Chrome OS? It's a very smart little niche player for devices that can't be categorized. Google probably knows that systems like Android will be best for smart devices like phones, netbooks and tablets, and that Mac OS, Windows and Linux are staying put in the desktop realm. But what about little oddities like computer kiosks in department stores, ticket claim machines at travel hubs, and other cheap, perfunctory Web-linked machines? That'll be where Chrome OS lives. Excited? Didn't think so.

Related: Google Drops a Bomb: Its Own Operating System

Add New Comment

19 Comments

  • spuffler

    Not leaving my conventional OS. Can't picture Google leaving cloud services out of that picture. The cloud ain't for me because without local applications, my data is going to be streamed to whatever server. Too much opportunity for data theft, IMO. The "browser as an OS" isn't going to be designed for both a complex local applications mix and the ability to load well appointed code from a remote server. I'm certain Google's OS is going to be set for their cloud services in the same way that Microsoft entrenched Interknot Exposer (and some cloud sites would want me to use their servers because their app offers some extra blingamabob...). We need to learn fro the past, not replicate it in newer venues.

  • Louann Oravec

    I really like Chrome. It is not virus ridden Internet Explorer, or Pop-up ridden FireFox. It works when it is supposed to, and game companies have even gotten on board with Java Plug ins. I would definitely check out a Google Operating system. I am so sick of rude pushy Microsoft updates. I feel if you cannot do it right the first few times, you are incompetent. I also have a problem with their tech help. My computer was fine until Microsoft sent an update for a new service pack; now the computer works like crap, and the tech was a moron also.

  • Paul Fountaine

    Too many assumptions.

    Here are mine - the Google folks aren't dumb, lazy or out of touch. The googlers have nearly as much money as, well, most state governments would love Google's cashflow. Where there's funding and smarts, good things happen.

    Simplifying seems to be a gift of Google, as it is of Apple.

    1-2.5% of a market is a good place to start. Own a piece, do it well, then expand it. Yeah, IBM never thought anyone would catch up with them either.

  • Mark Gavagan

    Respectfully, I believe there is definite appeal in a super-lean and super-secure OS and browser (we'll see if Google can deliver).

    You're right that it isn't for everyone, but for those with minimal computing needs beyond email and photos, who are buying new computers every 3 years because of all the BS that bogs them down, it seems GREAT!

  • Chris Dannen

    @Jaime: I appreciate your cynicism, and that's a good question: I have no idea whether MSFT is one of our advertisers or not, because I'm a freelance writer, not an employee in the ad department. But longtime readers of this column will note that I use Mac OS for 80% of my work, and that I have referred multiple times to Microsoft's "defining mediocrity" in both their software and their marketing. If there's any bias towards Redmond at FC, I've never seen a trace of it. (See below)

    http://www.fastcompany.com/blo...

  • Jaime Sanchez

    I think there are some real vqalid point herre however, I would have to ask if we know just how much ad revenue Micrsoft represents to Fast Company

  • Chris Dannen

    @Emilio, @Andrew, @Ethan: In your comments, you discuss the "cloud" and the prospect of thin clients as if they're something new. But @Mark has it exactly right: this is just another of dozens of Linux-based OSes. And when we have fast, capacious hardware coming cheap, and brilliant operating systems getting cheaper, why would we want to downgrade to something more limited? The only instance where that's appropriate is on truly limited devices -- smartphones -- and Chrome OS obviously has no place there. That's the line of logic I draw in my argument.

  • Chris Dannen

    @Benjamin: When a company rolls its own OS, it can put its own brand behind it, as Asus has done. It's not that people don't recognize the Google brand -- everyone's heard of it -- but they associated the name with search, not something that runs their entire computer.

  • Vaibhav Trivedi

    Hi! Chris,

    I agree with your point of view. In fact, the way you positioned Google Chrome OS at the end of your article is pretty accurate, too.

    But, I doubt that the OS team at Google is going to be an impractical lot. I personally believe Google has lot of Ex-Microsoft employees at top level in its OS brigade.

    As you see, Google Chrome Browser is still newly launched (when compared to other browsers) and it definitely has features far superior than other browsers.

    Here, i believe, tech companies need to understand that Ease of Use of a product and its mind-share must be like Microsoft to make a mark on the non-techie world - which is out there and is the real consumer (and payer) of these products.

    If Google fails to understand this (they are smart enough not to do this), then only will they fail. Else, just as Google Chrome Browser picked up market-sahre without any crutches Google OS too will take-off.
    (unlike Microsoft's Internet Explorer that used MS Windows to gain strong hold)

    Eagery waiting to put my hands on that Google OS.

    Regards,
    Vaibhav

  • Terry Leach

    I agree with Emilo Rojas. The Chrome OS can be a wedge opening to adopting cloud computing. Techies can argue against the concept of a Chrome OS/cloud computing adoption, but let's look at IT thru a business lense. First of all "consumer" technologies are invading and influencing business technology adoption, for example social networking, secondly younger generations are more tech savvy and not easily controlled. Finally technology capital budgets are being slashed, so moving projects from a capital expense to operating expense makes sense.

  • Andrew Shell

    I think you missed the point in a lot of your arguments.

    I don't think Chrome OS is just going to be the web browser turned into an OS. The web browser will be an major part, it will probably be the primary interface, but it's more. It's also not just another linux distribution. Yes it's based on the linux kernel, but from what I understand almost everything on top of that will be new. Instant on is a big deal and a lot of the partners they've mentioned imply that hardware compatibility will be a big focus. Google gears is also moving technology in the direction where we have webapps available when we're offline. We'll still be able to read our e-mail, create new messages and such and when we connect to the internet everything is synced up. This already exists in apps like gmail and google reader.

    You mention that as netbooks get to be more powerful, people will want them to become mobile versions of their primary PC. That's the whole point of cloud computing and Software as a Service (SaaS). If all of your applications are hosted on the internet then any computer you log onto will be identical to your primary PC. I log into my gmail on my desktop, my laptop, my work computer and my parents computer. It's all of my info, exactly how I'm used to it. And security shouldn't be a major concern. Most of these service providers spend more time and effort into security then we do at home, plus everything is backed up for us. We can communicate via secure channels with SSL or even encrypted VPN tunnels.

    What I see Google OS representing is a way to harness the strengths of the web and the desktop. The web makes it very easy to publish apps and since it's hosted it can be updated without the user needing to know or care about it. SaaS is revolutionizing business with tools like SalesForce, BaseCamp or PBworks. The desktop side lets us have fast access to a local cache of things if we're online or off. New services like OnLive will allow us to play games on cheaper low-powered hardware that currently is not capable of these processing intensive apps. I wouldn't be surprised to see other non-game applications moving to this type of platform. Photoshop in the cloud anyone? Google did list Adobe as one of it's partners.

  • Thomas Trumble

    You make good points about the hurdles that the Chrome OS will have to overcome, especially the issues of peripherals and the merging of the netbook and laptop markets/ hardware. Those are all legitimate reasons why the Chrome OS may just be a niche player. I'm sure that Google is taking these concerns into account, but whether they can overcome them is to be seen.

    On the other hand the Chrome OS could be the push that is needed to overcome these issues for the web OS in general. If Chrome gains traction then peripheral makers are likely to develop online solutions rather than require programs. Chrome's requirement for broadband could increase demand further and push enhancements to our infrastructure. Rather than being a problem for a web OS the merger of the laptop and netbook hardware could resolve the issue of hardware space for media making this a none issue and the choice of an object oriented OS versus a web OS a decision based on the applications that are to be used. For many of us who spend our days using Microsoft Office and a web browser, Chrome and available web-based applications would not be a significant difference. It may not happen, but it very well could.

  • Danny Lieberman

    Kudos for a great post - If Chrome OS is like the Chrome browser, then I think that Microsoft and Ubuntu will sleep well at night. I have lost count of the number of applications I use that don't work in Chrome - like hebrew web applications and Flash web conferencing.

    It's great to be able to pretend that device support is not an issue since everything is happening in the cloud. This is a naive beyond belief - since no matter what OS you have, Ubuntu, or XP embedded or VxWorks you always have to deal with the hard stuff like hardware and device drivers. For this reason - Chrome OS will need to deal with the same hardware issues as everyone else, wifi chips and all. The various packaged Linux distros and Windows have far too big a lead. Like Team Astana in the Tour de France having a 2 year lead on the rest of the teams.

    Netbooks are cool for sure - but as you point out - the notion of a JavaStation for reading email went out with the hula-hoop

    However my biggest concern is from a data security perspective - a Chrome OS machine that sucks and pumps all it's data from the cloud is a nightmare for a business - if they have any digital assets worth protecting at all.

    More about this at http://www.software.co.il/word...

    Danny Lieberman

  • Mark Brittingham

    I think that you nailed it.

    First, the people hailing this a revolution seem to consciously miss the fact that this is just another Linux variant.

    Second, comments to the effect that this brings us "closer to the cloud" don't make any sense to me either. What, exactly, can I *not* do on the cloud with Mac OS X (or, for that matter, Windows) that Google now offers? How am I "closer" other than having no other choice but to rely on the cloud?

    Seriously, does anyone really think that "Buy our stuff - you can do less with it!" will ever, really rally the masses?

  • Benjamin Matz

    You contradict yourself. In one paragraph you say that who is going to want to use the relatively unheard of Google Chrome and in the very next paragraph you recommend companies to roll their own linux based OS.

  • Ethan Lyon

    Google's Chrome OS is taking the operating system a step beyond what is currently available. Essentially, they are bringing users closer to the cloud--a place where they are increasingly spending more time. In Google's estimation, the cloud is the future of computing.

    They are not the only ones. Take example from Apple. They've already made steps towards cloud computing. MobileMe offers users space to store and compute on Apple's servers. Google is just taking this a concept further with Chrome OS.

    Ultimately, we are not fortune-tellers, but with technology I'd rather err on the side of innovation, not convention. Your view of what computing will look like in the future is very much conventional. Though Chrome might not be the be-all, end-all OS, it will certainly illustrate what is possible.

  • Emilio Rojas

    Your position is equivalent to that the status quo is the future. However, the fact is that small and new companies will be able to create the infrustruture necessary to do business much more cheaply by abandoning the PC mindset. Their infrastructure will be Internet Cloud oriented, and netbooks will suffice to meet their needs. Will Chrome OS be the winner in this domain? Who cares? But it might win if Microsoft and Apple listen to the likes of you. Fortune 500 companies will be the last to adopt the new ways, allowing the netbook providers to gain significant ground.

    It is significant that Google did not choose to make Android the basis of its netbook effort. This says that in many ways they agree with you, a netbook will need to be capable of many more things than my android phone, Chrome OS will clearly be much more than a browser, but it will have a browser centric view of the world. It will also very likely, as is Android, sit on top Linux allowing all capabilities that are required of an OS to appear as required.

    Google does not need to be the netbook OS of choice to win this game, they need a network centric view of the world that makes increasing demands on cloud computing. From a Google point of view Chrome OS is a wedge opening the gap, and allowing quicker adoption of cloud computing.