Opinion: Google Chrome OS. Will it take over?

Google to venture into creating its own operating system, it was only a matter of time. The day Google released this blurb of news, the whole Internet / Tech community went berserk over the possibility of ‘Goodie Two Shoes’ Google innovating in the operating system space, which is currently dominated by Microsoft. As far as Google’s own announcement goes: it was very low-calorie on substantial technical facts. All of the excitement – of course – was inspired by them voicing that their OS would essentially be extremely browser-centric. Like the name suggests, it will be based on Google’s recent entry into the browser market, being Google Chrome.

Browser = OS ?

Many vocal techies have been shouting this out for quite a while now. After all, the browser has become an operating system in its own right, no? Similar to desktop operating systems, like Microsoft Windows and Mac OS, the browser serves as a platform for other software to live on. In this case, that software just happens to be web-based. These web apps often employ server-side scripting technologies [like Ruby on Rails, ASP.NET, PHP, etc.] as well as client-side ones, with the main protagonist being JavaScript.

But can scripting languages genuinely be classified as real software? This is a tough question. Maybe si, maybe no.Cite from Duma Key, written by Stephen King. Fact is that web apps are more and more turning into fully fledged desktop-esque applications. They are taking over the tasks that traditional desktop software used to do so well.

Web-based e-mail is the most popular example of traditional software being ‘webified’. While webmail has been around since the nineties, the true cloud-based e-mail technology was inspired and primarily architected by Google. Gmail – especially in the light of recent developments – has become increasingly more of a program you download every time you point your browser to mail.google.com, rather than just a static listing of your inbox.

Other milestone initiatives have also risen to the occasion to shed some light on the cloud-centered future that may be ahead of us. To me, the most iconic example of this future just has to be Aviary, the online Photoshop replacement. It loads fast, does most of Photoshop’s basic graphical editing, it’s free and it integrates social networking into the digital art creation process. This is what a cloud-oriented world could look like if multiplied. Exciting indeed.

Back to Chrome OS

I started this post by introducing Chrome OS and the exasperation that surrounds it. But what do we really know about this [currently fictional] operating system? It turns out we’ve picked up painfully little in the intervening weeks between announcement and the present.

A quick rundown of its [alleged] feature-set:

  • It will be Linux-based: Chrome OS will build off open source code – not a real shocker. Google will not architect the OS’ underpinnings from scratch.
  • It will boast Google’s own, proprietary window management front-end, instead of adopting existing window management systems under Linux, such as KDE, Gnome, etc.
  • It will incorporate instant-on booting technology, meaning it should start up within a few seconds, much like some existing ‘instant-on’ Linux distributions work today.
  • It will be based on the Google Chrome browser. From what has been disclosed, it looks like native software might not even be supported. Web applications will surely be preferred, with Google’s own products naturally being pushed to the forefront.
  • Its release is due in 2010 (!). Any excitement generated now is actually uncalled for. The tech community should reserve judgment until someone actually gets some hands-on experience with it.

It’s safe to speculate that Chrome OS will not embrace [taking advantage of] advanced hardware capabilities like 3D hardware acceleration, and nor will it encourage the development [native] third-party software. Google’s take on their operating system is clean and simple: it must be lean on features and fully dedicated to the web.

A big step for Google?

All things considered, I think we all agree it’s a big thing for Google to take on software giant Microsoft – and niche computer maker Apple – at their own game. Google is no longer a small and insignificant competitor: it has spread its business to a multitude of markets. It seems as if it has made a sport out of nipping away at other companies’ core businesses.

But will Google actually know success with this [hopefully] innovative OS? Or, more likely, will it merely serve as a role-model for Microsoft and Apple to build off, an example for ushering their own OSes into the cloudy future?

Once more, no-one should close their eyes to the fact that Chrome OS will be extremely sparse-featured. Google has a history of taking their spartan concepts just a tick too far. A testament to this would have to be the Chrome browser. If it’s to be any indication of what’s in store for us, one doesn’t need a lot of imagination to envision what Chrome OS will look like. It’s not because it’s branded Google, that it’ll necessarily become a good product…

However, there is no doubt in my mind that Google will leave a big impression on the OS industry, which in turn will cause matters to change significantly. I don’t believe, though, that Google will be the one reaping successes from it left and right. In the long run, Microsoft, which is already slowly adopting the cloud-religion, will eventually migrate Windows to a more cloud-based paradigm. It will undoubtedly take them an extended period of time, but in the end I’m sure they’ll nail it.

Although I still strongly believe in Microsoft’s adeptness, it has become a disproportionately big corporation which is inherently slower at maneuvering into new markets / business models than rivals like Google. So inevitably the question to be raised here is whether Microsoft will get there in time…

A world of change is ahead

Either way, no matter who seizes the crown jewels, a world of change is impending. The future is cloud-computing – we all realize it – and everyone is making a jump at it. There is one problem though: nobody really knows exactly what they’re jumping at. Will everything move to the cloud in the end? Or will things remain to be more hybrid, like where we’re at today?

I’m leaving it open.
It’ll be an interesting case to see where we’ll stand in 5 to 10 years.

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