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Summary:

The fight for the netbook operating system just gained a new challenger in Google with the announcement of its Chrome Operating System. Although the Chrome OS is slated for various x86 computers, its initial target is netbooks, on which Google expects to see it running by […]

chrome_osThe fight for the netbook operating system just gained a new challenger in Google with the announcement of its Chrome Operating System. Although the Chrome OS is slated for various x86 computers, its initial target is netbooks, on which Google expects to see it running by the second half of 2010. Which begs the question: What’s so special about netbooks that they need their own operating system? And which of the current or planned OS environments is best suited for these devices?

Most operating system efforts in the netbook area have been misplaced from the beginning. Time and again we’ve seen desktop environments shoehorned into small screens with meager hardware. Windows, OS X, and most of the standard Linux distros work well on full-sized laptops and desktops, but aren’t optimal for a more portable device. While it’s appealing to have a consistent UI and desktop application support on these little laptops, consumers are challenged with poor performance and an interface not designed for a WSVGA or WXGA display. Which is why Google and others feel there’s room for a netbook-specific operating system.

An even better way to answer the question of why a netbook OS is to ask the following: Would you want your desktop environment crammed into your smartphone? What would happen if it was? How would you use the “big” interface on such a small screen? The answers are the very reasons why Microsoft developed Windows Mobile and why Apple has reworked OS X to fit on the iPhone. Perhaps the smartphone example is more extreme than the netbook case, but the same logic applies. And like a smartphone, the ideal use case for a netbook is to get connected to the web and run relatively low-powered software that isn’t CPU-intensive.

So who’s in the game, what do they have to offer netbooks and where do they fall short? Here’s my take, including each player’s odds of success:

  • Microsoft (4:1) – Windows Vista proved to be far too much for lowly netbooks to handle. Windows 7 shows much more promise as it runs well on limited hardware. But as with any desktop operating system, it’s not as effective in a mobile device. There’s simply too much extra baggage along for the ride that isn’t needed for web use and light application support. Windows Mobile might fit the bill, but Microsoft hasn’t announced any intentions to port it from ARM to x86 devices.
  • Apple (50:1) – If it does happen, you’ll only run Mac OS X on an Apple-branded netbook. Since there is no such device, this is the longest of shots to happen in the near term. I’ve dabbled with the hackint0sh crowd to install OS X on a netbook and while it works, the experience falls short. Again, the OS is designed to fit on bigger displays with higher resolution. Running OS X in a 1024×600 resolution gets old quickly.
  • Intel (10:1) – What goes better with chips than dip? In this case, the dip is called Moblin, which stands for Mobile Linux. Intel has backed this open-source mobile OS since 2007 and the first few beta efforts show promise. The interface is focused on getting you to the activities you’d most likely do with a netbook: email, web surfing, updating social networks and playing digital media. Your calendar events are readily viewable as well, lending some homage to the PIM functionality of today’s smartphones.
  • Linux (20:1) – Many have tried and many have failed to bring Linux to netbooks. Return rates on the first netbooks were high because consumers weren’t familiar with the Linux environments. To a large degree that has changed for the better, thanks to Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix Edition, but there are simply too many custom Linux distros. So many that consumers will never see the consistent look and feel they crave. Custom versions have included Acer’s Linpus Lite, HP’s Mobile Internet Experience, and ASUS’s Xandros distro with a dumbed-down interface.
  • “Instant-On” Linux solutions (15:1) – A sub-section of the Linux crowd has made some inroads on netbooks this past year. Folks like DeviceVM and Phoenix Technologies offer nearly “instant-on” Linux partitions that quick access to the web, email and productivity suites. These run in place of the main operating system, but as they’ve added more features, I’ve argued they could become full-fledged mobile operating systems in their own right. However, they’re still maturing and also face the consistent look challenge.
  • Google (3:2) – While I called for Android on netbooks last year, I like the idea of the Chrome OS even better. Yes, it’s a browser sitting on top of a Linux kernel, so technically you could lump it with the Linux points above. But there’s a few key differences that will help Google find success. Google’s web services offer a very consistent look and feel. They already have a massive user base used to that consistency. And to loosely borrow a line from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, they’re not skating to the puck, they’re skating to where the puck is going to be.

There’s plenty of commentary about how the Chrome OS will be too limiting and that web apps are much ado about nothing. But folks in this camp are “skating to the puck” and equating tomorrow’s web-based operating system with today’s computing paradigms. What about the future with HTML5 standards, allowing for more application-like functions in a browser? Why discount the freedom and opportunities that cheaper and more widely available wireless broadband will bring to netbooks? And won’t wider development adoption and maturity of Google’s Gears allow for far more offline opportunities in Chrome OS? WebworkerDaily’s Simon Mackie is ready for — and all but predicted — a web OS last month in his GigaOM Pro piece (subscription required). He envisions apps on a web OS offering that elusive productivity nirvana that we’ve been waiting for:

“If the web apps were well designed, you could even work on the exact same documents on your smartphone, effortlessly keeping all of your data in sync and accessible from anywhere, on any device.”

Remember that Google is talking about an operating system that’s a year or more away. There’s so much that can happen on the web in a year or two. A year ago, I didn’t envision recording video on my phone and having it appear on YouTube with the press of a button. I didn’t forsee that my computer would determine its location solely by using a database of Wi-Fi access points. Nor did I predict that little laptops costing $300-$400 would sell by the tens of millions. I sure missed some interesting trends when I was “skating to the puck,” but this time, I’m heading down ice and waiting for the pass that puts a web-based operating system on my mobile netbook in 2010.

  1. That’s pretty charitable toward Google. I don’t think that people want Linux on their netbooks, whether it’s got Google’s name on it. Plenty of other companies have tried pushing stripped down Linux for netbooks, and found that people were willing to pay more for Windows.

    Why would anyone want Chrome OS, when they could just run Chrome on Windows,while still having access to the rest of the Windows ecosystem?

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    1. Why would people whose needs are met with web apps (email, IM, web browsing, etc.) want a “thick” OS on their machine? “Thick” OSes are more complex, require more maintenance and use more system resources (CPU, memory, disk, battery, etc.).

      Would this solution be suitable for everyone? No
      Would this solution be suitable for a lot of people? Yes

      Why not have both on the market? Choice is good!

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      1. There’s nothing wrong with choice, but everyone’s pretending like Microsoft should pack up and go home because Google’s making an operating system.

        The market will not sustain this. I think that most people, when presented with a $200 web-only GoogBook, or a $300 netbook that handles all the same functions AND can sync with their iPod, AND can function without a persistent internet connection, they’re going to choose the full netbook, and it’s going to be running a version of Windows.

        Sure, maybe Chrome OS will find a 5% niche like Mac has, but that’s probably about it. If Google was really serious about ushering in a new era of cloud computing, they shouldn’t have bailed on the spectrum auction. They should have taken the opportunity to provide affordable pervasive access to their web-based services. Isn’t that their ultimate goal? I don’t see how yet another Linux distro gets them there.

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      2. Agreed that choice is good and having Chrome OS on a netbook and something else on your laptop or desktop is a perfectly valid thing. It’s also not the vision that Google laid out which has netbooks as the first target. The second you target desktops and laptops a whole other set of issues raises its head – syncing with my iPod, my phone, using my EVDO card, printing, scanning, using apps that aren’t on the web. Oh, speaking of that last point…

        “But folks in this camp are “skating to the puck” and equating tomorrow’s web-based operating system with today’s computing paradigms. ”

        Yeah yeah, the future is new, shiny and we just don’t get it… Heard it before. But why is having everything on the web BETTER? Google Apps has been a serious misstep as are most ‘let’s put that desktop app on the web’ efforts. Recreating the desktop feature set in the cloud ignores the fact that the web opens up very different activities. It’s a fundamentally backward looking mindset, letting the desktop drive what you develop in the cloud.

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    2. Stephen Francis Ballmer Wednesday, July 8, 2009

      You are an obviously unlearned baffoon or a microsoft sycophant!

      Just bury your head in the sand and keep telling yourself that Windows is the best, nothing can compete or even think of replacing it, and all other attempts are futile.

      Then a couple of years down the road, you can pull your head out, open your eyes, and discover how wrong you were. The chinks in the microsoft armour have begun……it is just a matter of time before the behemoth falls from its own weight and mediocrity.

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      1. I never said that Windows is the best, I just said that it’s the dominant platform, and will continue to be for quite some time.

        I’m confident that Google will make something reasonably nice, that will probably appeal to 5% of the market, just like Macs do, and just like they’ve done with the Chrome browser. It will probably be influential among the tech community, like Chrome is, and it will probably cause Microsoft to rethink how they engineer Windows down the road, but it’s not going to have mass market appeal any time in the next 5 years.

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  2. Web apps are definitely the future. Imagine:

    1. developing an app that runs on all OSes (Windows, OS X, Linux, …) and all device types (smartphones, netbooks, notebooks, desktops, …), without all the typical porting & support effort.

    2. being able to instantaneously update millions of users, when an improvement is made or a bug is fixed, in a web app.

    3. being able to offer an app for free/sale/subscription to any user located anywhere in the world.

    HTML5, fast JavaScript browsers, etc. allow for the development of web apps with near desktop performance. Something like Native Client (NaCl) even enables the development of processing intensive web apps (e.g. games, simulations, etc.).

    Hopefully, Google’s Chrome OS will light a fire under the feet of desktop application developers to begin to webify their products.

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    1. very nice comment , i’m ok with you !

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  3. Richard Chapman Wednesday, July 8, 2009

    “The market will not sustain this. I think that most people, when presented with a $200 web-only GoogBook, or a $300 netbook that handles all the same functions AND can sync with their iPod, AND can function without a persistent internet connection, they’re going to choose the full netbook, and it’s going to be running a version of Windows.” AND anti-virus software AND DRM (polling every device 30 times a second) AND forced updates AND a clogged Registry AND defragging AND anti-spyware AND WGA AND UAC. And then doing it all over again in 3 years because Microsoft has built obsolescence into all of its products.

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  4. I have to agree with Mike. Microsoft dominates the OS world in a way that Google wishes they could dominate search. People go with what’s comfortable, and for most people that is Windows. Unless Linux and Chrome machines come in substantially cheaper than Windows machines, then people will go with what they know. Apple could compete with Microsoft in this area, but they so far have shown an unwillingness to produce low cost devices.

    Next you need to look at games, and lets face it you won’t be able to play WoW on Chrome or Linux, and someday these tiny devices will be capable of doing just that. There is no real reason for a person to go with Chrome or Linux, and every reason to go with comfort.

    P.S. My home is Microsoft Free

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    1. Well, you can play Quake Live on Firefox – and its a great experience, but it requires a plugin.

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    2. “P.S. My home is Microsoft Free”

      Microsoft has done one major thing right – and thats the xbox 360 software design (don’t get me started on the hardware). xbox 360 is a near perfect environment for gaming, music, video, and other media. With windows media player i can watch online tv shows, through xbl i can order hd movies on demand, i can watch netflix programming, and with transcode 360 i can watch basically any video file on my pc through my tv – oh and i can do all of this wirelessly.

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  5. [...] Netbook OS Oddsmaking: Who Will Win the War? >> GigaOm [...]

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    story has entered the popular today section on popurls.com…

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  7. This isn’t about pushing MS out of the box. It’s about application distribution. It’s about doing what Google is doing with Android on cell phones (btw – Chrome’s GUI and Android’s GUI use the same library) – leveraging the OS to create two markets:

    * Applications
    * Advertising

    There’s one more market to create: Ebooks, which to date Google has not entered but seems poised to do so.

    So far Android has been a resounding success (20+ devices by December). Companies wishing to give away netbooks using the cell phone model are facing real problems with Windows – they get little revenue from software sales to users and frankly, they have massive support headaches. So far as game support goes, if you are buying a netbook to play games, it’s like buying a Y2K era 400 Mhz PIII machine.

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    1. I personally see “core” gaming moving to the console (see: XBOX 360) and casual gaming in the cloud.

      I can’t wait till erotic photo hunter is a web based game with every bar connected to the same high score list.

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  8. Many said that there would be no market for netbooks or any kind of small laptop, yet this has proved to be an extremely lucrative one for all the big manufacturers.

    Currently most netbooks are sold with a Windows or Linux option, but the majority of people are prepared to pay the extra dollars to go for the Windows one. It’s important to still give people a choice and it’s hard to say whether Google will be able to tap into this market – only time will tell.

    I’m also sure that the odds you have given to Apple should be lower than 50-1 as it’s only a matter of time that they brought out a small laptop which will be compatible with the Iphone and Ipod.

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  9. From the comments, I gather none of you actually uses a netbook. I use an EeePC every day. I put the new Ubuntu remix on it, and I love it. I cannot even imagine running XP on it.

    I don’t care who “wins” in the OS fight for netbook, desktop, or laptop. I want what Ubuntu gives me for all three. I look forward to Snow Leopard because I think it will be even faster and smaller, but I won’t know how it does on my Mini until it gets here. If Microsoft or Google can do something even more efficient for $50 or less, I’ll switch. I have no loyalties.

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    1. If Google succeeds with Chrome OS, Linux wins as well, because it will get all the hardware support that Chrome needs for its Linux base. So Ubuntu, Moblin and other netbook oriented Linux distros have a brighter future now, though mainly for Linux users who know how to installa a distro themselves.

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