Netbooks: The Disruptive Dual-OS Future

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In the computer operating system game, you don’t have to dominate to succeed — just ask Apple. With that in mind, emerging open source-based netbook software platforms could have  surprisingly bright futures as secondary OSes, including Google’s. Here are several reasons why they’ll bring changes.

The idea that you don’t have to use just one operating system on a single computer is, of course, hardly new. Many people use virtualization software to run multiple OSes concurrently. Manufacturers such as Dell have long offered pre-configured dual-boot systems, and specialize in virtualized systems for data centers. Many people also use lightweight Linux-based instant-on environments such as Splashtop as secondary platforms. For that matter, 20 years ago people ran DOS and Windows on single systems — working in both.

However, the vast majority of users are still of the mindset to use one OS on a single machine, and most machines ship that way. Partly because of long-standing pressure, and spending, from proprietary players as powerful as Microsoft, the computer industry vigorously steers the majority of users toward a single-OS model.

That’s going to change, though, and the destruction of Microsoft’s OS hegemony is not required. With emerging netbook-focused open source operating systems, industry players big and small are exploring strategic ways to advance widespread acceptance of complementary platforms on single machines. European startup Jolicloud is developing a netbook-focused operating system (built on Debian and Ubuntu Linux) that is specifically positioned as a value-added adjunct to another OS. This week, as the Linux-based Chrome OS grabbed so many headlines, Jolicloud quietly announced that it’s entering pre-beta testing with its Jolicloud OS.

“Our dream of turning any Windows netbook into an open Jolicloud machine becomes a reality,” wrote CEO Tariq Krim in the announcement blog post. “At Jolicloud, we believe people should be able to switch operating systems on their netbooks,” he added. “Like the adoption of Firefox made Web 2.0 possible, enabling users to switch OS will accelerate the growth and benefits of open cloud computing.”

Does Krim have a point? CNet and others have already been impressed with Jolicloud’s complementary, secondary OS in preview versions. In the screenshot below, you can see how Jolicloud organizes types of applications by genre:

Indeed, it will be interesting to watch as Jolicloud proceeds through beta testing with its version of a complementary OS. The company has a very heavy-hitting management team. Krim was the founder of Netvibes, one of Europe’s successful web startups. Niklas Zennström, co-founder of Atomico Ventures, Skype, Joost, Kazaa and JoltID, also holds a seat on the company’s board.

Hardware makers, as well, are thinking of strategic opportunities involving multiple mobile operating systems, and a notable trend is taking shape as PC makers rapidly warm up to Android. While PC makers such as Dell and Acer favor Android for their smartphones, Acer also sells an Aspire One netbook that runs both Android and Microsoft Windows. The company is pursuing that idea in spite of the fact that Google is positioning its upcoming Chrome OS as a platform for netbooks, while maintaining that Android is targeted at mobile phones.

“The unique dual-boot OS on the new Aspire One ensures users fast connections, the familiarity of Windows, and the added convenience of open source mobile platforms and applications,” said Sumit Agnihotry, vice president of product management for Acer America, when announcing the dual-boot system in October.

With these themes in mind, could Google’s upcoming Chrome OS (like Jolicloud, based on Ubuntu) also have a future as a secondary, mobile, Linux-based operating system? From what we’ve heard of its architecture so far, that doesn’t seem to be its goal, but I’m betting the idea is a strong backup plan for Google. I’m already questioning whether the extremely autocratic “all data in the cloud” model that Google is pursuing will alienate users. I question whether people trust the cloud to that extent, and I know I love many of my local software applications and utilities.

I also completely disagree with those who see Chrome OS as “a nuclear bomb” aimed at Microsoft. It’s exclusively focused on the netbook market, not desktops and servers. It’s more of an experiment than a nuclear bomb.

Let’s assume that the Chrome OS cloud-only model does alienate users. In that case, could Google reposition Chrome OS as a secondary, instant-on operating system that might ship alongside other operating systems, or simply be downloadable to use that way? Could it be the OS that you hop into for a crash-proof, cloud-based experience, just as many people hop in and out of the Chrome browser for its stability and other reasons?

As evidence of how achievable this would be, people are already easily running Chrome OS on Dell netbooks, and noticing how much faster than Windows it is at booting. People are also calling Chrome OS “lightning from a USB key” as they use it via USB alongside other operating systems without even having it locally installed. That’s been a popular way to use Linux-based operating systems alongside other ones for years, absent any virtualization, as the folks at PenDriveLinux will attest.

The Chrome OS experimenters are working with first-generation open source code, and individuals may well choose to deploy the OS alongside other operating systems in imaginative ways,  regardless of Google’s marketing moves.  It’s released into the wild for that kind of usage, where Google won’t control everything — part of the power of open source, which Google itself understands well.

Is being a secondary OS such a bad thing? Hey, you can do quite well playing for accompaniment — just ask The Pips. Accompaniment is an entirely possible future for Google’s project, one of several emerging open source-based mobile operating systems that don’t have to crush larger competition to succeed.

21 Comments

litl_phil

Hi Sebastian,

It is likely that tightly-focuses appliance OSs will eventually reduce many people’s dependence on generic OSs simply because so much of Joe User’s internet activity is moving to webapps like (for eg) Google Docs or Flikr. Generic OSs will continue to have their uses, but as the web becomes the platform for applications, cloud-based OSs and web appliances will fulfill more and more of the typical user’s requirements.

Where litl’s model differs sharply from ChromeOS (besides the fact that our product is already on the market (available at litl.com) and so you don’t have to wait 12 months!), is that our cloud-based OS has been specifically designed to cater to many home user’s web needs. The litl card-based UI has been totally redesigned to provide a different experience and metaphor for the web – it does not resemble a browser. It is easy enough for anyone to get the hang of almost instantly not matter how technophobic they might be. We try to remove the layer between you and the web, for example, plug our device in and a very short time later you can be watching a slideshow of your photos merged from several different sources on your tv via HDMI or in our easel mode. Sharing your links and photos is incredibly easy on the litl webbook. And we have many litl channels (special apps that customize streaming media, content or webapps) in the pipeline. Soon we will be releasing an SDK so a community of developers can make their own channels for litl.

Nicholas

My take is that Chrome will very much be like an OS even though it will perhaps run as a sub-OS on my Mac for example. I also welcome this concept. Perhaps the commonalities with OS in the Linux/BSD lineages is a focus on services allowing for a more layered approach. Think X-Windows…

It remains to be seen if consumers will find this attractive, but most consumer services will likely be web-based ultimately. I do you he term web-based more loosely in that more complex web systems need to be developed for off-line work and applications.

trip1ex

My wife remotely ran Photoshop on her work desktop from her home laptop the other day.

NOt hard to imagine Chrome becoming my wife’s laptop at home and at work while my wife’s work desktop morphs into part of her corporate back office.

Ricardo Francés

All data in the cloud means you have to buy space in the cloud for your data. This is where it will really get interesting. And you have said it yourself, what happens when the cloud gets “sidekicked”… err.. I mean, wiped clean?

Jolly cloud is an interesting take on the desktop, I suggest you see what’s Gnome3 doing (and might as well come with Ubuntu Lucid Linx). My question is, as far as having a second OS on the computer, wouldn’t it just be better, if not easier (it never is just that easy), to install Jollycloud or Ubuntu instead of Chrome (and have something that’s more complete and allows access to files when/if Windows crashes)?

Take a look at Morphin Morphix and their Firefox only Linux distro. I wonder if Firefox is able to answer to Chrome OS with their own spinoff.

Microsoft is like this enormous rock sitting by the sea, one cannot hope to get it to move by pushing but the waves, albeit slowly, will move it, and if not, they will at least succeed in wearing it.

Anonymous

@ Tom B–good point about the Mac OS and Windows running on the same machines, and Microsoft’s historical hesitancy to have that kind of thing happen. It will only happen more.

Sebastian

A S

HereAndNow & Sebastian make great points. It is going to get very common for people in the near future to leave a big hard disk connected to their home Internet routers and access the data on that disk from any computer, anywhere. Lot of people already do this. It’s going to get mainstream.

Tom B

Some years ago, MSFT was working on a version of Windows NT for the PowerPC processor, the IBM/motorola chip Apple used between about 1994 and 2006. MSFT wisely killed the program, understanding that seeing Windows being pokey and insecure on the SAME computer as a much better OS was bad for the brand. Now, you can run both Mac and Windows on the currently-used Intel Macs. This does NOT help the MSFT brand, but DOES help get Macs into Enterprise. Still, many people are prejudiced against Macs or have concerns about upgrading to something other than Windows. Both classes of people could reap enormous benefits by having a superior alternative right there, pre-installed on their new Net Books. Why settle, even, for the incrementally improved Win 7, when you can have some form of LINIX (say, Chrome) that will resist malware and will really FLY?

Short MSFT.

Sebastian Rupley

@Darwin–precisely. Look at how many companies are focusing on hybrid cloud deployments where they demand to retain private and local data, but also appreciate the cloud. I think consumers will go the same route–using the cloud, but demanding the flexibility of local resources.

Sebastian

Darwin

The people who sell cloud services and the pundits who have never implemented anything in their lives always love this idea. The reality is consumers and company employees want to run everything possible on their own machine and they certainly don’t want multiple OS’. I say that as an IT Architect of long experience who runs multiple OS’ on my various Macs via virtualization and reboot.

HereAndNow

“all data in the cloud”

A user’s data does not have to reside in the “public” cloud. It can also reside in a “private” or “personal” cloud.

If some people want to set up their own local web server(s) for their documents, music, videos, etc., no problem. This will, of course, require maintenance (installation, maintenance, backups, upgrades, etc.), but some people may be OK with that.

The great thing about the ChromeOS approach is that it keeps the client devices fast, simple, low cost & maintenance free. The added bonus is that the “desktop” is portable, so you can log into any device, anywhere, to access your personal environment.

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