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Chrome OS announced, consumers will be the winner

by Philip Sellers

Making the statement that all you need to run today is now online, Google has introduced it own OS – dubbed Chrome OS and largely based around its Chrome web browser.  Its a bold statement where thick-clients are still the de-facto standard.  But it comes at a time where online applications like GMail and Google Docs are gaining ground on their bulkier, arguably-obese first-cousins.

It is a natural extension of the cloud platform that Google has been developing for years, and an evolutionary step for Google.  Until the introduction of Chrome, the browser, Google was largely at the mercy of third-party browser developers.   And while it shocked many that Google introduced their own browser, it made sense to control the main interface to their products and to be able to control that experience.  Apple has used the same, successful model in their business controlling the end to end of their user experience and its garned them a lot of success.

Google hails Chrome OS as a lighweight, open-source OS alternative.  Its key focuses are speed, security and simplicity.  Those three factors may put it well above the Windows learning curve, where viruses and malware are a major headache, speed is laughable (at least in the Vista releases) and the interface has grown disparate and confusing.

The product announcement indicates that the OS won’t be available until second half of 2010, and that may be its biggest hurdle.  That gives Microsoft and Apple a year to develop and beat Google to market with devices which fill this area.  And that is perhaps the biggest head-scratcher.  Linux is there and there are current windowing environments which could be leveraged to quickly move this project to market, so why take until 2010 and also why give this much pre-warning to your competitors?  Several reports I read yesterday hailed this as doomsday for Microsoft.  Time will tell.  Others said this won’t affect Apple, but that’s hard to believe too.  While Apple seems largely uninterested in netbooks – the inital target of Chrome OS, its hard not to think that this may apply to larger form factors.

I can’t help but think how similiar this really is to the old mainframe days and green-screen terminals.  All the processing is done back in a datacenter somewhere and just the screens are being piped to the user.  Everything is cyclical and here we go again.  I guess the big difference is that now processing is done on clusters of every-day hardware instead of multi-million dollar, monolitical machines.

Another byproduct of the announcement is the close working relationship of Apple and Google.  Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, even sits on Apple’s board of directors.  It is hard to see who this isn’t and won’t become an even bigger conflict of interest for him.  I think his days on the board are probably numbered.  And as smart as it was to include some killer Google apps in iPhone form, the decision to keep Microsoft compatibility and even Yahoo (hey, the got push email) in the iPhone looks smarter and smarter on Apple’s part.

Consumers are the clear winner from this, however.  Google has a long history for creating great, free software and supporting it with ad revenue driven by its core search service.  With that business model, the OS will likely not be much more than a browser and maybe a couple other applications and the web being the star of this show.   This is a clear departure from Windows, Mac OS X and even Linux desktop OS’es of today.  The timing is good too, with the advent and popularity of netbooks.  Telecoms are looking to bundle their internet service with netbooks and push the same subsidized hardware/internet service combination we’re accustomed to with our cell phones.

That’s not to say Chrome OS won’t face some problems.   Apple tried a similar approach when launching the initial iPhone.  One year later, they back-peddled and introduced native apps because customers were unhappy with the Internet only applications currently available.  They longed for the offline and native speed interactivity of applications.  But a netbook is a different form-factor than a phone, so it may work better for this type of device.

Even though Google is now taking control over its destiny in regards to the terminal used to access its services, its now going to be at the disposal of the network provided with these netbooks.  Sure, WIFI connections will be speedy, but Google will face similiar problems with wireless internet via cell networks that Apple and other hardware vendors face.  And, mobile internet isn’t fully baked in my opinion.  There are still lots of areas without service throughout the country and places where the service available is doggedly slow.  Its an adequate trade off in an emerging market – the mobile internet service will eventually get better.

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