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Last week Google showed off its progress on Chrome OS, introducing an apps store in support of it and offering up a pre-release hardware trial program (real machines won’t ship until the middle of next year). But it’s likely all for naught. Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s objective of making Chrome OS a “viable third choice” in operating systems looks doomed.
The Problem With Chrome
Right now, the hot trends in technology are social, real-time, mobile and cloud computing. Chrome OS is only optimized for one of them — its machines are true cloud clients. Schmidt even evoked the old Network Computer vision. Chrome OS computers will be highly dependent on the cloud for applications and minimally functional when disconnected. They’ll have cellular modems, but it’s not clear that existing networks can handle the network traffic demands of a cloud-centric client. Meanwhile, there’s nothing in Chrome OS or its user interface that accommodates social media or real-time information feeds.
Chrome OS also suffers from awkward positioning, both externally, to developers and potential customers, and internally within Google’s own product line-up. While it’s true that PCs serve both companies and consumers, the value of the Network Computer premise appeals only to enterprise IT managers. Its manageability and simplified functionality play best in applications like airline reservations, point of sale terminals and ATMs, or in limited-application mobile devices used in shipping and store inventory management. Yet at least for now, app stores are purely consumer offerings. The apps Google showed last week all came from media companies (New York Times, NPR, Sports Illustrated), Electronic Arts and Amazon.
Opportunities for a New OS-Based Platform
Meanwhile, Google itself says Android will be its primary tablet operating system. In fact, Google aims Android at most of the best opportunities to establish new or alternative operating systems. I’d argue that there are three product categories where Google could try to establish a new OS platform, either with Android or Chrome OS:
1) Mobile phones. Google has Android.
2) Tablets. Gesture-based tablets have all the momentum over netbooks, and are also Android targets.
3) Single-function Internet devices based on a customizable OS kernel. This category also includes The Internet of Things, with its connected gas pumps and refrigerators, that may be better served by something that looks more like a sensor than an OS. But other single-function devices include, in order of current volume:
- TV set-top boxes. Google TV is based on Android, with a Chrome browser-based UI that shows its limitations.
- Game consoles. The “compatible console” concept with hardware running a third-party OS has not worked so far (e.g., Sega Dreamcast with Windows CE, 3DO.)
- E-books. Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color already runs Android.
- Widget machines. Chumby has set the standard for “Internet viewers.” The Sony Dash is built off Chumby.
- Dedicated social devices. Just like Chrome OS, Jolicloud uses HTML5 and a Chrome browser on top of Ubuntu Linux, but it uses Facebook Connect heavily. Handheld social devices like the TweetPeek and Sony Mylo seem to be going nowhere, while others include phones (Sidekick, Motoblur, Kin).
Those options don’t look promising for Chrome OS. They’re either tiny markets today, already staked out by Android, or, in the case of game consoles, brutally competitive and unproven for third-party OSes. I suppose Google could fight it out with PC operating systems based on price. A Microsoft OS makes up 10 to 20 percent of cost of netbook, but Schmidt says Chrome OS devices should cost $300 to $400, about the same as netbooks. An Intel processor, solid-state storage, and an integrated cellular modem raise costs. I’m tempted to agree with Om, and suggest Google dump Chrome OS and put its muscle behind Android.