Google Chrome OS: Hype, Hope or Humbug?

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.