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4 Big Gambles Google Is Taking With Chrome OS

You’ve gotta hand it to Google (s goog): The company is never shy about throwing the proverbial spaghetti against the wall to see if it will stick. Over the years, it’s introduced countless projects that have gone through long beta cycles only to fail miserably — or achieve a degree of success far below what was expected. Google Docs, for example, was supposed to topple Microsoft (s msft) Office, and is still predicted to do so, but if that ever happened, I missed it.

Next year, Google will introduce one of its most ambitious projects yet: Chrome OS (GigaOM Pro, subscription req’d). There are quite a few misconceptions going around about the new operating system, among them that it’s aimed squarely at Microsoft’s operating system hegemony. It’s not. Chrome OS is targeting netbooks, not desktop and server systems. Still, the operating system includes some bold gambles from Google. Here are four of them.

Return of the thin client. Take a look at this CNet news story, which reports that  “Oracle’s Larry Ellison today resurrected the company that designs a scaled-down desktop system — known generically as the network computer — and announced plans to ship new models in the first quarter of next year.” But note the date: 1999, not 2009. Indeed, Ellison was championing thin clients — computers with few local hardware resources that would get applications and data out on a network — back in the late 1990s.

It was an idea that was subsequently tried many times, and failed. Yet fast-forward to today, and Google’s Chrome OS is placing the very same bet. As company officials noted yesterday: “In Chrome OS, every application is a web application. Users don’t have to install applications. All data in Chrome OS is in the cloud.” Chrome OS netbooks will be thin clients.

All data in the cloud? Many of the smartest people predicting the future of cloud computing are noting that companies want to deploy hybrid public and private cloud applications, namely because they don’t want to have all of their data on a remote network, with little control over it and the potential for lock-in and losses. However, Google’s Chrome OS is a bet that consumer and business netbook buyers will be perfectly happy to trust everything to the cloud. There won’t even be hard disks on Chrome OS netbooks — only solid-state drives. Will users accept such an absolutist model?

Poof goes the OS. Chrome OS is architecturally very different from other operating systems, bypassing many types of boot processes and others in order to optimize performance. Additionally, however, the OS will actually reimage itself if malware is detected. If Google pulls this off, Chrome OS systems may be free of the guaranteed performance decay that Windows systems tend to have over time. Still, users may be wary about an operating system that’s ready to exit stage left at any given moment.

Drivers? Support? Fuhgeddaboudit. Have you ever called Google for Google Docs support? I haven’t either, even though I use the applications. When you release an operating system, though, if it reaches a large audience, that audience is going to want support. Just ask Microsoft, which spent years trying to effectively support and patch Windows Vista.

In addition to excellent support, which I don’t think of as Google’s specialty, users of Chrome OS are going to want their netbooks to work seamlessly and instantly with their printers, digital cameras, smartphones and more. Chrome OS isn’t being built from scratch. It’s Linux-based (the Ubuntu team at Canonical has been helping it take shape), so Google can get a headstart by incorporating existing driver libraries and the like.  But Microsoft spent years trying to catch up to Apple in terms of automatic hardware detection and installation with its Plug-and-Play initiative, and Apple users will tell you that it never quite succeeded. Is Google about to find out what a huge headache it can be to support an operating system? History argues that will be the case.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Chrome OS will be one of the most interesting tech stories to watch next year. In many ways, though, it’s a Hail Mary.

51 Responses to “4 Big Gambles Google Is Taking With Chrome OS”

  1. Jack Crow

    I don’t think hardware support will be an issue, since it will be built on, I assume, the latest stable Linux kernel. Linux has far more hardware support than a Mac- this is only obvious. Windows has windowsey drivers. Linux to date has more drivers compiled in its kernel than any other operating system, and that includes compatibility the average Joe’s devices.

    I think Google’s basically trying to make the desktop version of Android, here. For the people who don’t wanna’ stare into a phone screen to do their finances. I think it’s a cool idea, and that extreme and interesting products are what we need to give the computing industry a new face. People are getting bored with the whole “buy more Windows” thing.

    I just hope that Google doesn’t give Linux a bad name, or make people think that local software for Linux is nonexistent when it has more applications for more things than anything else. Almost seems like they’re putting it to waste- why not offer a local option? But eh, we’ll see what comes of it. I know a lot of people who would be fine living with just a browser, since that really is ALL they use a computer for. 7 second boots aren’t going to be exclusive to Google’s OS by any means, though. Linux is always getting better in this area.

    I expect there will be a lot of fuss from the Desktop Linux crowd trying to explain to people what Linux really is, since for many people Chrome will be the first time they lay eyes on Linux.

  2. 2 years ago, I had to setup mail with Google Apps for a custom domain. I had never done this before. So the MX records where sometimes wrong, sometimes not. My hosting provider could not help with that. So I mailed Google. 24 hours later I got a personal response with complete solution. For a free product.

  3. Not a great article here.

    Thin: Well, just because an idea went through the hype cycle ten years ago doe not mean it is a bad idea now. Think ASPs and now think SaaS and clouds. Ubiquitous mobile broadband changes this going forward.

    Cloud: Are you making assumption you cannot write data to SSDs? Huh. Heard of Google Gears either? Also think 4G again.

    Poof: Weak points – Windows goes poof too. Simplifying the OS is not inherenty bad. Forget about PCs and think about Internet Appliances (yes, another idea that went through the hype cycle). Ever used an IT supported Windows laptop? Any issues comes up and the reimage. Remeber you data is in the cloud.

    Drivers & Support: Who calls Microsoft? I never have. I would just give up on the machine… Nuke and pave (see above).

    Additionally you miss the announcement about future ARM architecture support and neglect to mention smartbooks. There is a major platform shift to mobile internet devices. This is actually a great time to return to simplified systems and older hyped usage models. Free yourself from single system dependance and data persistence. Your personal machine is your superphone and everything else is just a temporary internet terminal offering larger but less portable hardware as needed. Get on board.


  4. chuckmcknight

    @heath Oh, you’d be surprised at how unprepared most non-technical people are for multi-million dollar deal presentations. I’ve sat through too many of them and watched the equivalent of fail whales occur so I am not so confident that they’d come with any sort of backups. That takes a tech savvy person to think of. :-)

    One clarification, I don’t view the term “Average Joe and Jane” as being tied to a particular locale as your comment seems to indicate. :-)

    Yes the Chrome OS is aimed for people who just want a browser to run their apps. That’s ok. It’s a niche market and will continue to be a niche market. Specifically, it’s a mobile niche market. We had something similar back in the 90s and while it was ok, it eventually died out in favor of more powerful desktops and local storage. I used to joke with friends that going back to X Windows Clients gives you a thin experience, remote applications and storage, and a relatively lightweight over the wire protocol, but often the better technology doesn’t win out (not that X Windows didn’t have its own set of issues).

    With regards to Gmail’s uptime, Google gets props there. I was one of the closed beta users and I distinctly remember how different it was from my other mail services. Given my experience, and I have decades of it, I don’t too wound up about a particular cloud being out of service but then again as you note, I have contingency plans because I’m accustomed to dealing with that sort of thing.

    Regardless, I don’t fault Google for their strategy, I’m just waiting to see how it turns out. I will observe, however, that I haven’t and don’t plan on spending time writing web apps (not my area of business), so it’s pretty irrelevant to me whether or not Chrome OS flies or dies. However, I won’t be recommending it to my family any time in the foreseeable future. They all use too many apps that aren’t available on the web. :-)

    Your mileage may vary thought, so good luck! :-)

    Be seeing you.

  5. @Heath, your mention of the “spareness” of Chrome OS makes me wonder if we might ever see dual-boot machines appear with it. Could you see people doing cloud work with Chrome OS, experiencing great performance and no crashing, but being able to jump over to, say, Windows 7 for tasks involving local apps? This might involve partitioned disks and systems that cater to two different kinds of operating systems.


    • chuckmcknight

      Think virtual machine, then you don’t have to dual boot.

      Hmm, come to think of it, Google *could* set up a way to run VMs so that people would have the option of a full OS, but I guess that would make the devices too expensive and poke holes in their “the web way is the only way” mentality.

      For what it’s worth, evangelists equate to fanatics in my mind and I try to avoid/ignore them as much as possible.

    • @Sebastian, OS coexistence is surely possible. It’s available on Intel Macs. Whether it’s a partitioned system or @chuckmcknight ‘s vm, I don’t know. I don’t have enough depth of knowledge to judge which would work better.

      But would OS coexistence be needed? The pressures coming to bear on all tech products are the same: at some point, everything needs to be redesigned from the ground up. Except in specialized fields, people’s needs change every couple of years — simplifying and averaging out, then rolling over to something new.

      For myself, I’m surprised at two things about my netbook experiences, which parallel what I’ve felt about the Chrome browser (I use both FF and Chrome daily). One is how much I love the netbook’s simplicity and it’s cuteness. Yes. :) The other is how relieved I am when I have work that needs to be done on another piece of equipment. I’m finding unexpected benefits from having a greater range of visual experiences, for programming, design and writing. My mind synthesizes more creative energy and a softer interface with audience, from the wider variety of visual exposures.

      • Of course it would work – there are at least 7 examples online now that are web-based cloud OSes that work just using a browser (I use them with Chrome as the front end, in stealth mode).

        The biggest problem is going to be encryption vs. speed for most Google OS users.

  6. Another thought: Facebook is in fail mode, when measured against Twitter’s growth. This is due in large part to Facebook’s increasing complexity, which makes it fatiguing, not fun, to use now. This is a classic example of a tech product life cycle. Every product, once past about 40% of its life cycle, begins to accrete unnecessary features weight, as product managers try to please the widest range of customers, to keep existing customers and attract new ones. The product’s focus gets blurred. The lack of focus and the increased weight drag the product down in the end — unless the product managers are aware of these potential dangers.

    Google’s Chrome OS would have the advantage of being new and stripped down. Like the Chrome browser, once you got used to its spareness, you’d find you didn’t need most of the bells and whistles you thought you’d be missing. Resilience and flexibility, not to mention processing efficiency, would be powerful advantages for Google’s Chrome OS.

    For those thinking about the reliability of the cloud, think of the average user, not your tech-savvy self. Average users are already accustomed to the sloppy cloud, even with its not-always-reliable storage and security. The average user doesn’t have, and doesn’t want to develop, the resources to ensure virtually perfect storage and security systems locally. The average user is Google’s primary market.

    Server federation, which Google is introducing with Wave, would allow corporations and techs who have the longhaul server facility, hardware and staff resources to run their own server cloudlets behind network security barriers, while participating in Google’s loose super-cloud data routing and apps structures. This would benefit corporations and techs who don’t have the financial resources Google has for app development.

    As much as I appreciate local control, and despite my background as a programmer, over the past three years I have found Google’s web apps to be of increasing value to myself and my professional colleagues. We are very excited about Wave. I have crossed fingers for Google Chrome OS.

    I would love to disconnect from Microsoft, who have had the world by the balls for more than fifteen years, and who have not managed their product life cycles optimally, for a corporation with such deep pockets. Their allowing so many holes in their OS’s, initially out of a culture of developer hubris which MS actively nourished, then later out of pure sloppiness, made malware a worldwide growth industry which increasingly corrodes the value, safety and efficiency of data and processing even now, to say the least.

    • chuckmcknight

      I’d have to disagree with some of your statements. Being tech savvy or not, I hear an inordinate amount of people complain/whine about Google Mail, et al., being down. Imagine being a non-technical person doing a business presentation when Google Docs suddenly fails. The whole notion of “people are used to the sloppy cloud” is pretty irrelevant and a huge fingerwave when you lose a multi-million dollar deal because the app on the cloud is down. That’s equivalent to Mr. Gates making the comment that “well, sometimes computers just fail and people have to deal with that.” (side note, karma visited him during this lifetime upon many occasions as his demos blue-screened. ). So I would have to say that if you’re asking the Average Joe to put his life in the cloud, you’d better make damned sure the cloud and its applications are reliable.

      I disconnected from Microsoft years ago, having used either some distro of Linux (Ubuntu currently) or Mac OS X. The latter is probably more suitable for most home users who lack the tech savvy to be an admin, but the former is certainly quite usable. I’ll run XP in a virtual machine when I need an app that won’t run under Wine, but those are becoming fewer as time goes by. If you want to disconnect from Microsoft, there’s nothing stopping you.

      So while I wish Google luck in their venture, I have grave doubts as to the viability of it in the near term for any except the tech savvy people. The rest of the general populace will most likely eschew Chrome OS for what they are used to.

      • @chuckmcknight , when one is doing a multimillion dollar deal, one gets ready for the presentation with offline resources and fallbacks.

        Again, I think Google’s market for this OS is average Jone and Jane — worldwide Joe and Jane, btw.

        You are coming from a position of understanding, knowledge and anticipation of issues based on your historical experience and expertise, which the mass of Google’s market doesn’t have, and doesn’t care about.

        People whine about Gmail being down because they rely on it, and love it. And it’s rarely down.

        Google is what it is because it serves its market effectively, both technically and focus-wise.

        You’re right, there is an acceptance bump that Google would have to overcome for Chrome OS. If they’re able to tie their OS to low-cost devices that perform well, and if they use viral marketing, as they have did with Gmail, and has they have been with Wave, they may jump that bump.

        Do you remember what tech-savvy people used to say about Gmail? I do. It became cool. It became feature-rich. What are the numbers on its usage now? One reason Chrome and Chrome OS are being developed, IMHO, tho this is only a guess, is to support further feature enrichment in Gmail and Google Docs, not to mention Wave.

  7. @ronald, I have to agree that that under-$200 netbook with decent local resources could compare pretty favorably to a machine that works only with apps and data in the cloud. At least you can customize and work with favorite local apps on that netbook.


  8. Well “There won’t even be hard disks on Chrome OS netbooks — only solid-state drives. Will users accept such an absolutist model?” I think not, surely they did’t have to think far back to see that the public just wont accept it, It wasn’t too many years ago that that all the netbook makers thought that users would accept linux, and we all know wwhat happened, They didn’t and returned them by the boxload. It wasnt till they loaded Windows did they take off.

    I see History repeating its self.


    • The reply buttons are off by down one, btw. So regarding the fact there is love for the Google Chrome browser, that has absolutely zero to do with an OS. Z-e-r-o. Now, I might change my mind when Maxthon (who has a cloud system of their own), FireFox, and Chris Pirillo each have their own OS.

  9. chuckmcknight

    My netbook boots in under 30 seconds (Ubuntu 9.10) and offers a reasonable compromise in features without having to rely on cloud connectivity. Until I am reasonably assured that I have ubiquitous connectivity (which even cellular networks cannot provide to this day) and that I have control over my data (read: too many unresolved security issues exist today and for the foreseeable future), then the Google proposition has little or no value to me.

    It can boot in under 10 seconds? Doesn’t matter if I can’t connect to the Internet.

    All the data lives in the clouds? Whose cloud? How much do I trust them to keep my data backed up and secure?

    While I get where Google is trying to go, I do not believe the infrastructure exists to make it feasible nor will it be feasible in the near term. What nobody seems to want to come to grips with is the cost and time associated with building out that sort of backhaul. You cannot just sprinkle magic Google pixie dust on things and say “poof, all of the connectivity and backhaul problems are solved.”

    Unfortunately, this is an area where apparently nobody who uses the Internet seems to understand. There seems to be some sort of “if we demand capacity, it will come” herd mentality that has no basis in reality. I’m not siding with the operators here, just trying to point out that there may be a place for Google’s Chrome OS devices, but in typical fashion they are pushing their agenda by overhyping an unrealistic ideal.

  10. My first reaction was. Hmm, seems like a good idea if your are locked up in the Googleplex for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week.

    Second one, it’s not 1999 anymore and the chicken egg problem is some what solved, i.e. applications on the web.

    Third one, the whole web application thingy stinks, it’s like a TV. Totally passive computing, one can’t automate any data processing anymore. To me filtering is not about reducing, it’s about augmenting data with MY data to give meaning to data, so it’s useful to me. Google s….

    Ok, for $50 to $100 I buy one, if I can integrate it into MY work process. Since I can buy a Notebook, 2G Mem, 15″ screen …, for $189 at Walmart on black Friday and program that thingy so it does what I want it to do.

    Just me.

  11. First of all the computing power and the evolution of internet in general was no where near the potential we have today compared to1999. Second thing , Larry for all his street smarts was keen on developing databases, selling database machines , and some more database.

    Second thing, the press is biased on Google attempts. Google has created successful products. Google Earth, Google Maps and Gmail are the best.
    Plus there are Google Docs, Picasa, Google Voice, Orkut which are very successful in their own market.
    Then the Google Search.

    Google has the engineering talent pull many more products like the above.
    Simply put, this product is not for the journalist or accountant. Its a cheap internet browsing device that can leverage USB spec to read and write to Devices ( Cameras, Printers, Camcorders.).
    If anything the device manufactures need to follow the standard specs to be able to say ” Chrome Ready”.

    While the article is good its got too much skepticism.

    Do you want to spend 5 -10 minutes booting up the device ?
    Assuming you boot computer everyday ( or each time a Microsoft Security Patch , or crash)
    5 mins boot up time equals a good 30 hours per year spent of “Waiting for Something”.

    Sure ,its got limitations , but the positives outweigh the negatives.
    If they can manage to sell the thing for under 300 dollars , it will be a winner.

    • chuckmcknight

      I appreciate your position, but using Windows as the poster child for bad behavior is not telling the whole story. Windows gets a bad rap because it’s a mess under the covers and in spite of claims to the contrary, needs to be admin’ed by someone who knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately, it has built-in cruft accumulation so the only real way to speed things up is to periodically do a reinstall from scratch (damned registry!!!!!).

      I use Ubuntu 9.10 on my netbook, and it consistently boots up in under 30 seconds which realistically is fast enough IMHO. From what I’ve read about Chrome OS, if I can’t connect to the Internet I will have an expensive doorstop which can do absolutely nothing.

      Google, like any other company, has its hits and misses. There will certainly be a niche for Chrome OS, but rather than overhype and set totally unrealistic expectations Google would be better advised to temper the hype, underpromise, and overdeliver on this one. Unfortunately, I think they’re an advertising company at heart and therefore can’t help themselves in overpromising and underdelivering.

      Chrome OS will either be really good in a niche market or a complete disaster, with the best case falling somewhere between those two extremes and no more.

      But your mileage may vary.

      Be seeing you.

  12. I got a netbook for its similarity to thin clients. I needed something small and light for a few narrow purposes. The netbook doesn’t replace my other equipment. As netbook prices have fallen, the acceptability of spending money to support a smaller set of apps on am ultra-light, connected device has become more attractive. I personally resent the idea of Kindles and other reader devices, which don’t allow for easy writing, and cost as much or more than low-end netbooks. Being a creative and technical person, I always need to record ideas and develop content. Even the best phones aren’t fantastic for that. Think of netbooks as consumer appliances for reading, writing and watching. Unless we’re gamers, programmers, musicians or designers, we spend most of our computer time doing those three things. And most of our consumable content, and much of our creative WIP’s, are already stored on remote servers, not locally. So in terms of thin client and cloud serving concepts, Google’s OS may be on the right track.

    Regarding persistent heavy OS’s, people are being trained by social apps like blogs and Twitter to recognize and roll with the mutability of information and interfaces.

    The most valid concern for Google’s OS would be consistent, error-free device support.