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 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.