Netbooks: The Disruptive Dual-OS Future

In the computer operating system game, you don’t have to dominate to succeed — just ask Apple. With that in mind, emerging open source-based netbook software platforms could have  surprisingly bright futures as secondary OSes, including Google’s. Here are several reasons why they’ll bring changes.

The idea that you don’t have to use just one operating system on a single computer is, of course, hardly new. Many people use virtualization software to run multiple OSes concurrently. Manufacturers such as Dell have long offered pre-configured dual-boot systems, and specialize in virtualized systems for data centers. Many people also use lightweight Linux-based instant-on environments such as Splashtop as secondary platforms. For that matter, 20 years ago people ran DOS and Windows on single systems — working in both.

However, the vast majority of users are still of the mindset to use one OS on a single machine, and most machines ship that way. Partly because of long-standing pressure, and spending, from proprietary players as powerful as Microsoft, the computer industry vigorously steers the majority of users toward a single-OS model.

That’s going to change, though, and the destruction of Microsoft’s OS hegemony is not required. With emerging netbook-focused open source operating systems, industry players big and small are exploring strategic ways to advance widespread acceptance of complementary platforms on single machines. European startup Jolicloud is developing a netbook-focused operating system (built on Debian and Ubuntu Linux) that is specifically positioned as a value-added adjunct to another OS. This week, as the Linux-based Chrome OS grabbed so many headlines, Jolicloud quietly announced that it’s entering pre-beta testing with its Jolicloud OS.

“Our dream of turning any Windows netbook into an open Jolicloud machine becomes a reality,” wrote CEO Tariq Krim in the announcement blog post. “At Jolicloud, we believe people should be able to switch operating systems on their netbooks,” he added. “Like the adoption of Firefox made Web 2.0 possible, enabling users to switch OS will accelerate the growth and benefits of open cloud computing.”

Does Krim have a point? CNet and others have already been impressed with Jolicloud’s complementary, secondary OS in preview versions. In the screenshot below, you can see how Jolicloud organizes types of applications by genre:

Indeed, it will be interesting to watch as Jolicloud proceeds through beta testing with its version of a complementary OS. The company has a very heavy-hitting management team. Krim was the founder of Netvibes, one of Europe’s successful web startups. Niklas Zennström, co-founder of Atomico Ventures, Skype, Joost, Kazaa and JoltID, also holds a seat on the company’s board.

Hardware makers, as well, are thinking of strategic opportunities involving multiple mobile operating systems, and a notable trend is taking shape as PC makers rapidly warm up to Android. While PC makers such as Dell and Acer favor Android for their smartphones, Acer also sells an Aspire One netbook that runs both Android and Microsoft Windows. The company is pursuing that idea in spite of the fact that Google is positioning its upcoming Chrome OS as a platform for netbooks, while maintaining that Android is targeted at mobile phones.

“The unique dual-boot OS on the new Aspire One ensures users fast connections, the familiarity of Windows, and the added convenience of open source mobile platforms and applications,” said Sumit Agnihotry, vice president of product management for Acer America, when announcing the dual-boot system in October.

With these themes in mind, could Google’s upcoming Chrome OS (like Jolicloud, based on Ubuntu) also have a future as a secondary, mobile, Linux-based operating system? From what we’ve heard of its architecture so far, that doesn’t seem to be its goal, but I’m betting the idea is a strong backup plan for Google. I’m already questioning whether the extremely autocratic “all data in the cloud” model that Google is pursuing will alienate users. I question whether people trust the cloud to that extent, and I know I love many of my local software applications and utilities.

I also completely disagree with those who see Chrome OS as “a nuclear bomb” aimed at Microsoft. It’s exclusively focused on the netbook market, not desktops and servers. It’s more of an experiment than a nuclear bomb.

Let’s assume that the Chrome OS cloud-only model does alienate users. In that case, could Google reposition Chrome OS as a secondary, instant-on operating system that might ship alongside other operating systems, or simply be downloadable to use that way? Could it be the OS that you hop into for a crash-proof, cloud-based experience, just as many people hop in and out of the Chrome browser for its stability and other reasons?

As evidence of how achievable this would be, people are already easily running Chrome OS on Dell netbooks, and noticing how much faster than Windows it is at booting. People are also calling Chrome OS “lightning from a USB key” as they use it via USB alongside other operating systems without even having it locally installed. That’s been a popular way to use Linux-based operating systems alongside other ones for years, absent any virtualization, as the folks at PenDriveLinux will attest.

The Chrome OS experimenters are working with first-generation open source code, and individuals may well choose to deploy the OS alongside other operating systems in imaginative ways,  regardless of Google’s marketing moves.  It’s released into the wild for that kind of usage, where Google won’t control everything — part of the power of open source, which Google itself understands well.

Is being a secondary OS such a bad thing? Hey, you can do quite well playing for accompaniment — just ask The Pips. Accompaniment is an entirely possible future for Google’s project, one of several emerging open source-based mobile operating systems that don’t have to crush larger competition to succeed.