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Google Chrome OS: Hype, Hope or Humbug?

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Google Chrome OSSo there’s a new OS that’s based on the web, relies primarily on a web browser, and whose native apps are web apps. Old news, you say? We already know about Palm’s (s palm) WebOS. No, I don’t mean that one. This one will primarily target netbooks. Still old news, you say, because we know a modified Android is coming to netbooks soon. No, I don’t mean that, either. I’m speaking of a Linux kernel with a modern web browser. Way old news, you say, since Linux distros and Firefox were available on netbooks even before Windows. No, no, I don’t mean that, either.

I’m talking about Google’s (s goog) brand-new (on paper) Chrome OS. Introduced only a day ago, I’m disappointed we didn’t get a comic book to describe to us simpletons how this will revolutionize our life. Because it’s from Google. So you can run the company’s services. And see its ads.

With all the talk about how this impacts Microsoft (s msft), Linux, Apple (s aapl) and hardware manufacturers, the most important participant is ignored: the consumer. We already knew netbooks were primarily a geek’s toy, at best mildly interesting to general consumers, until Windows became available on them. Suddenly, they became an even cheaper cheap laptop, and sold in the millions. That’s still their consumer image today, and still fuels their sales. Google says people are clamoring for a leaner base from which to just launch a web browser, but that’s exactly how netbooks began — with the Linux/Firefox combo already mentioned — and consumers didn’t go there.

Besides, if Google just wants a newer web experience, it could port Chrome to Linux and work with a Linux distro to strip it to run lean. There’s no reason whatsoever for Google to write its own OS if this is all it wants, especially given that its first OS hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm.

Since this is Google, there are numerous posts hailing Chrome OS and questioning how it will change everything. I’ve seen the Wayne Gretzky “puck” quote bandied about. It’s nice to talk about skating to where the puck will be — Steve Jobs used it, and Apple seems to get there. The problem is that Jobs usually knows the users’ end goal, and therefore does know where the puck will be. Others do not. In fact, they frequently don’t even know the puck is going to be in the rink, let alone near the net.

Here are some things to consider before we get too excited about Chrome OS:

  • It’s vaporware. Over a year away? That’s a lifetime in this market.
  • In timing the announcement near Windows 7’s RTM, Google may hope to stall potential netbook gains Windows 7 might garner for Microsoft (i.e., The “Google OS” is coming, let’s wait). A market-freeze-via-vapor-announcement is classic Microsoft, and though it’s amusing to see its own tactic used against the company, it doesn’t make it any better coming from Mountain View instead of Redmond.
  • Given Google’s track record, we can expect to see it in a year (assuming it’s on time) with a beta tag for maybe two years.
  • Will being “Google” be enough to push the masses (there are those pesky consumers again) into buying netbooks in droves like the availability of Windows did?
  • Netbooks are a familiar and traditional form factor; there’s nothing really different there. Consumers have shown they want a familiar and traditional OS on them.
  • The real creativity in operating systems today is in the smartphone world, and will require a non-traditional form factor — not a small laptop — to carry over into larger devices.

Finally, Google’s announcement implies a certain disdain for a traditional computer OS, like it’s something that only hinders launching Google’s browser to use Google’s stuff. Sorry, while my browser is one of the apps I run all the time, I have many others as well. The web is nowhere near ready to replace this. It hasn’t the ubiquity, it hasn’t the reliability, it hasn’t the diversity and it hasn’t the speed. The idea that in a year we’ll begin moving from OS’s providing great flexibility and numerous functions — of which using the web is just one — to some “all-web” OS is not analogous to skating to where the puck will be; it’s analogous to people who once thought flying cars were just around the corner.

16 Responses to “Google Chrome OS: Hype, Hope or Humbug?”

  1. I have spoke with many clients about this as I am in web development and do some PC repair on the side (literally some). Most are not and will not be comfortable with the whole notion of storing all personal information in the “cloud” or just plain old internet to us “old timers (28 years of age being old)”. There is nothing new or exciting here. I don’t personally think people are going to totally buy into the software as a service lifestyle. There is a thing called ownership and that is where Apple/MS know the game. These are large multi-billion companies and so is Google. However these companies have been in the OS/Client game alot longer and know how to play that game. I don’t think this will flop at all. I think this will mostly be the computer you buy for the kids to play on and for Grandma to send e-mail to junior with, nothing more.

  2. Champs

    “This is not just about web apps, it’s about the entire netbook package as it would exist in Chrome OS.”

    So this really comes back to Tom’s same old “netbooks suck” song and dance. Clearly a netbook isn’t for Reestman or a lot of the penny-wise, dollar foolish folks who thought they were just buying a cheap, super-portable laptop.

    Whether I need a powerful system (rarely) or not, my wife is using the desktop, anyway — so here I sit with a not-needed-for-work-anymore MBP that cost more than twice as much as the television I’m using as a primary activity, anyway. It’s like being that guy at the trailer park with a pickup truck nicer than his own home. A smaller, sub-$400 gadget with enough battery life that it doesn’t need a power cord run up to the coffee table sounds perfect for me, anyway — and I don’t care what OS it runs.

    • “So this really comes back to Tom’s same old “netbooks suck” song and dance.”

      I’ve never said netbooks suck. I’ve said they’re the new cheap laptop, which is correct. And I’ve said that Apple should not make one, which I still believe. But I never said they sucked.

      “A smaller, sub-$400 gadget with enough battery life that it doesn’t need a power cord run up to the coffee table sounds perfect for me, anyway — and I don’t care what OS it runs.”

      Great. But now you’re talking about YOU, whereas your initial statement was about the more general population (“people”).

      There are those perfectly happy with netbooks, which is fine; we all have different needs. But if Chrome OS is going to have anywhere near the impact some are claiming it will, it must have a far, far greater reach than current Linux/Windows netbooks do now. I believe the majority of consumers are not ready for that; those that are don’t need Chrome OS anyway.

  3. stephen king

    I’m confused? It was easy when it was about mac vs. softies. Then you added
    linux. Now it’s an imaginary google os.
    If someone would put this flamewar on a separate website, i might buy a
    ticket and a beer and hotdog.

  4. Daniel Kvasnicka

    “but that’s exactly how netbooks began — with the Linux/Firefox combo already mentioned — and consumers didn’t go there.” — it’s as if you said that we don’t need a Mac because Windows can run a browser too. It’s about the way it’s crafted. I think that Chrome OS will be much more streamlined than Ubuntu with a browser in it and thousands of other things, that — for a certain target audience — ale useless.

    I don’t think the new OS will take the world by storm and endanger any of the major players. But there certainly is a target audience for which the OS will be exactly the thing they need. The only non-web apps my wife uses are video and music players… which will certainly be in Chrome OS, web-based or not. And I know of more people who use their computers that way.

  5. One of the things to think about when talking about an OS is hardware support. Google certainly has a good track record with regards to web apps (albeit the perpetual beta tag) but will consumers be okay with limited or “beta” support for devices?

    People expect stuff to just work and may be okay with web apps crashing or not working quite right because they’re beta, but when your netbook crashes or doesn’t recognize a USB device or work with Bluetooth, will they be so forgiving?

  6. Champs

    A few points that everyone has missed:

    This is not just going to be a tabs-in-a-browser-window scheme. is maybe an introduction of the shell experience to expect.

    People are perfectly happy with web apps. The popularity of applications like Facebook, Salesforce, and Gmail demonstrates that as a fact, and anything that doesn’t give them the red-headed stepchild iPhone treatment will do just fine.

    The applications will be better, i.e. one step above the desktop browser experience. Google knows a thing or two about how to build them, and they’d be crazy not to make their extensions work beautifully with existing sites.

    • “People are perfectly happy with web apps.”

      Certainly, some are. But it doesn’t mean they’re not also happy with their desktop apps. It also doesn’t mean they’re in a position to rely on the web 24/7, whether it’s because of unavailability, or economics, or something else.

      This is not just about web apps, it’s about the entire netbook package as it would exist in Chrome OS.

  7. osserpse

    >”Google says people are clamoring for a leaner base from which to just launch a web browser, but that’s exactly how netbooks began — with the Linux/Firefox combo already mentioned — and consumers didn’t go there.”

    I think a main reason for the “consumers to go there” is not so much about the OS or Google as about a ubiquitous internet with reasonable fees and coverage.

    For many people it’s still to expensive to be online 24/7 AND on-the-move – even if there is 3G flat rate plans as low as $25 a month here where I line.

    For me a kind of “country wide WiFi” is a killer app – not to mention the same on global basis. It’s painfully bad to travel internationally hoping to find a accessible network…

  8. Richard

    I think Chrome OS is hugely ambitious and there are many open questions such as how on earth they can possibly build a platform proof against malware and not requiring security updates when Chrome itself needs regular updates like any browser.

    Personally I’d prefer Linux on a netbook, but the manufacturers virtually killed this by going for separate niche Linux distributions that have far less available software than Ubuntu, SUSE, etc – it’s possible this is being fixed now with Ubuntu Netbook Remix and Moblin, but it may be too late.

    If it takes Google to popularise a Linux-based OS (which is what Chrome OS is, it has a Linux kernel) on netbooks as a real alternative to Windows, I hope they succeed. Particularly if it’s a safer, easier thing to recommend to non-techie friends, compared to the nightmare of Windows stability, viruses, etc.

    It will be interesting to see what happens… if Chrome OS does get some traction, it will be a great help to Linux by ensuring hardware support, and you should be able to very easily install a standard Linux on top of any Chrome-based netbook.

  9. Astrochimp

    I too, agree with Tom for once! Wow, cool. Nice article.

    Google’s claim that their OS will be free of security issues has been called out as idiotic, and so it is – but gullible people might believe it for a while, just as gullible still believe that Apple’s OSX is more secure than Vista, not knowing that obscurity (small market share) is not a kind of security.

    I’m not surprised that Google pulled out that sly criticism of Microsoft, however mendacious, because it appears to still work for Apple. I don’t think Google can get away with comparing their stuff to Windows 98 as if Windows 98 were shipping today, though – Apple has saturated that marketing message IMO.

  10. natsfan7

    Great post. The only reason people are calling this a “game changer” is because it’s from Google. If any other company had announced this, everybody would “sure, I’ll believe it when I see it,” but the everybody is taking a big ol’ swig of the Google Kool-Aid and thinking this is something more than it is. With that said, I could see a point in the not so distant future (I’ll say 10-15 years) where web technology will have progress to the point where a browser-based OS is capable of being the dominate OS.

  11. Bryce

    Well stated. I could see Google being more successful than Ubuntu on a netbook because the general masses know about Google. Talk to any non geek – and they don’t know what Ubuntu is, and they have a misunderstanding of what Linux is. Everyone knows the name Google and respects them. They will have a following… It will not however destroy MS or Apple.

    • Agreed! general mass still stay away frm linux and ubuntu… brand name of Google add in a lot this… about ur comment on MS and Apple… i doubt.. this will surely make big holes in the $ bags of M$ and Apple.