The real meaning of the Google OS (sans hype)

It’s always fun to see a trailblazing product get announced and then watch the press run around trying to figure out what it is, what it means, and why it’s important.  The latest occasion for this kind of tomfoolery is Google’s announcement yesterday of the Chrome OS.  Here’s my take on it:

What it is

Chrome OS is the Chrome browser plus a version of Linux that is built to run a single application: the Chrome browser.  The “applications” that run on Chrome OS are what we have traditionally thought of as web sites, pages, or services, things like Google, Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, Delicious, or pretty much anything else that starts with http.  These include services like Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets.

What it isn’t

A traditional operating system.  You can’t install Photohop, MS Office, iTunes, Yahoo messenger, AIM, or any other OS-based application you’re used to.  If you want to play MP3s, you’ll have to find a site or service that will do that like Pandora or Orb.  If you want to IM, you’ll need a web-based IM like Meebo.  If you want to edit pictures, you’ll need a web-based photo editor like Aviary’s Phoenix.

What we don’t know

  • It’s unclear if Google will build hooks into Chrome to allow it to manipulate local files.
  • It’s also unclear how much access web applications would have to peripherals.  I don’t know if I can just plug it into an iPod, webcam, or external hard drive and have it work.  Google claims that Chrome apps would run on any standards compliant browser, and that functionality just isn’t part of the current browser model, so I’m guessing these peripherals would not work.

What it means

Chrome OS, at release, will be built primarily for netbooks.  It will let you boot the netbook quickly and browse the web within seconds.  It’s good for people who want access to the web anywhere and aren’t doing heavy-duty computing like hardcore PC games, Photoshop, or even complex Excel spreadhseets or Powerpoint presentations. It definitely isn’t going to be useful as a media center.

A netbook with Chrome OS is what used to be known as a thin client or a Network Computer, but with real graphics capabilities.  It’s meant for mobile computing, and it will only threaten Microsoft’s Windows OS in the ultra-portable netbook space for the foreseeable future.  Windows 7 need not worry.

As for the press’ coverage, it’s largely regurgitations of the Google Press Release with a dash of analysis and a double helping of “maybe it’ll be important…you decide.”  But then…we have TechCrunch, which is getting harder and harder to describe as a “news outlet.”

Today Michael Arrington brags about how he predicted the Google OS in September of ’08, despite the fact that rumors have been flying since at least ’06 admittedly without the “Chrome” moniker.  In his “prescient” article, he claims

Chrome is nothing less than a full on desktop operating system that will compete head on with Windows.

Not true at all.  As Google made clear in their latest announcement, Chrome OS will still require Linux as the traditional OS it runs on top of.  He goes on to grandly pronounce

Expect to see millions of web devices, even desktop web devices, in the coming years that completely strip out the Windows layer and use the browser as the only operating system the user needs.

Firstly, the browser still needs Linux, and let’s not forget our history – the pioneers of computing have been talking about the thin client since 1993 and the similar Network Computer since 1996, both of which follow the same model as the Google OS, so he wasn’t exactly going out on a limb there.  Why he felt the need to brag about his tardy prediction again today, I can’t say.

Certainly there are still questions to be answered about Chrome OS and I don’t think it will be a game changer in the next couple years, but it is a step forward in making mobile computing cheaper and more convenient.  We’ll still need our PC’s with real OS’s to do real work, but this could indeed take a big bite out MS’s dominance in the low-end PC market, particularly when wireless data plans become more affordable.  Of course, don’t expect MS to be silent – they’re working on their own browser-based OS as well.

Update: 3:19pm

By way of Valleywag (bravo VW), I noticed Dave Winer’s summation of the Chrome OS, and he almost gets it right.  He says:

Let’s be dispassionate. Before yesterday’s announcement: 1. Chrome ran on Linux. 2. Linux was an operating system. 3. Linux ran on netbooks.  However, most people want XP on their netbook, not Linux. That was true yesterday and it’s still true today.

I think this is mostly accurate, but I think Google is trying to create a different class of device that is actually different from today’s netbooks and therefore, it isn’t a question of Linux vs. XP.  A Chrome netbook will boot directly to a browser window, and everyone knows how to use a browser, so it avoids the typical Linux geekiness.  The fact that it only runs a browser clearly makes it much less feature rich than XP, but it’s also much faster and cheaper.  Maybe it needs a new name to signify its limited abilities – micro netbook or browserbook or something…but I agree with Dave that calling this an OS is really just a marketing maneuver.

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