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.