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Google's Chrome OS: Today Netbooks, Tomorrow the World?

Last month, I started a short series of articles on netbooks. I intended to finish that series this month, but a recent Google announcement pushed me to write one more netbook-related piece. On July 7, Google announced its intention to augment the web-based services that they currently offer—Gmail, Google Apps, Google Docs, Google Calendar and the new Chrome web browser—with (not surprisingly) a web-based operating system. The Chrome OS will be open-source and based on some variety of Linux. It is intended to be preinstalled on netbooks by their manufacturers.

Why a New OS?
Google hopes that its future lies in its cloud services (I guess $13 billion annual profit from browser ads isn't enough), but all of Google's clients must boot an OS before they can start their cloud working. That means that 90-plus percent of Google's customers must start their days by first running Windows, and no matter how brief that startup face time is, it apparently grates on the Google folks, who likely have dreams of empire and hegemony on par with Microsoft's. By providing a Redmond-free OS, Google's future clients will have a seamless, 100 percent Googlicious boot-up-to-shut-down experience.

The whole Chrome OS idea intrigued me because I'm sort of using a Chrome-ish operating system already. My Lenovo S10 netbook came pre-equipped with two operating systems: a complete copy of Windows (well, sort of complete, as it's Windows XP Home), and a second, very basic OS. When you turn the S10 on, it boots in 12 seconds into a very stripped-down operating system called "Splashtop" that looks very Linux-y and comes with a handful of apps (a web browser, IM client, photo album, MP3 player, Skype, and some online games). While being able to surf the web in 12 seconds sounds like a great idea, it's plagued by the sort of thing that bedevils many of the Linux distros that I've worked with: downloading files from some sites is problematic, pages that require ActiveX controls don't work, and so forth. I've tried to like Splashtop, but when I need to get to the web I usually find that I've got no real choice but to fire up Windows and use IE. Of course, your experience may well be different, depending on the sites that you frequent.

Linux Lacks Apps
I wonder about Chrome OS's ultimate success, even if it only appears on netbooks, because it's built atop Linux, and no matter how many times I decide to give a Linux desktop a try, I soon end up re-learning that there's more to a computer than a browser. I do need some apps—a word processor, an image viewer (and in particular one that reads raw digital camera images), a calculator, at least a minimal paint program, non-trivial games, and the like. When I start looking around for Linux apps like that, again and again I come up short—something that I would guess Chrome users will experience as well. Apps matter, no matter what sort of computer you use. (Don't believe me? Just ask any iPhone user.)

On the other hand, it'd be a real mistake to entirely count Google out in the application area, as it's a big company full of smart people, many of whom are developers. They've probably got enough brainpower in-house to launch a small catalog of applications for Chrome OS.

Internet Connectivity Isn't There Yet
I'd be remiss if I weren't to bring up the thing that I imagine came almost immediately to readers' minds when they first heard about the notion of Google launching a set of web-based systems: Larry Ellison's notion back in the '90s of a "net PC." I must admit that I found the idea of a computer that's relies upon the Internet for its data and applications a goofy idea a decade ago, and it still seems like a goofy idea. Like most people nowadays, I don't have a desktop PC, I've got a laptop, and I travel with it a lot. The fact is that constant Internet connectivity is not going to be a reality anytime soon. It'd be sort of difficult to get anything done on a plane with a net PC, and even those with an immobile computer with a wired connection to the Internet sometimes experience Internet outages. Imagine the expense incurred by firms of a commercial building who've invested heavily in Chrome OS systems when its WAN connection has gone down and isn't back up for a day—eek. Disconnect a Chrome OS system from the Internet, and poof! Instant paperweight.

No matter what happens with Chrome OS, it'll have at least one definite benefit: a bit of OS competition for Microsoft—that's always a good thing!

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