How Google could Win the OS Wars

Thursday Apr 10th 2008 by Matt Hartley
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The gOS release suggests that Google could succeed if it entered the market with a variation of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution.

For a number of years now, Google has been waging a battle to win over your desktop without ever settling for one OS platform. Opting to play it safe by not entering the platform wars, Google has ensured that most of their offering are available on a cross-platform basis. This decision has allowed Google to gain considerable ground without ever needing to fire a shot across the bow of the Windows flagship.

But what if they were to put this mindset aside, and find themselves in a position to take on Microsoft in a more direct way? Clearly, in order for this to happen it would mean that Google has to enter uncharted territory. Competing directly with the big gorilla of proprietary software – Microsoft.

Experiment by proxy – gOS.

Ever since its initial release, gOS has been touted as non-Google supported. Even its name simply translates into "Good" OS, not Google OS as some initially speculated.

Regardless, the fact remains that gOS has allowed Google to see what it might be like had the search engine giant decided to enter the OS market using a variation of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, along with the gOS distribution layout.

Overall, gOS has been received as an over-branded mess by most who dare to give it a go. Chaotic menus, redundant use of online applications along side of offline applications – there’s little doubt that Google has seen what not to do. While there are some areas that gOS has done well with, overall more time has been put into branding than development.

Even while fully understanding the repercussions of duplicating the mistakes made by the gOS group, could Google storm the heavily fortified Microsoft market share and perhaps even gain substantial ground for Linux users in the loyal-to-Redmond hardware market?

I think they might be able to make it work, so long as they utilize the following commonsense strategy.

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All the tools are there for the taking.

Thanks in part to fantastic efforts like the desktop Linux community movement, Google now has the raw material at their disposal to take desktop Linux to the next level. At the same time, however, there are areas Google would need to address in order for them to compete on level playing field with the proprietary alternatives out there. The Google enhanced needs include:

• Create a real hardware eco-system. Despite desktop Linux offering the best hardware compatibly seen in years, the fact is there are still a number of sound cards, video cards and wireless devices that require heavy tweaking before the end user is going to be up and running as they expect.

What’s needed is a means of not just qualifying existing hardware for use with desktop Linux, but also making it genuinely attractive for today's hardware vendors to play ball with the chosen Google-supported Linux distribution. Google also needs to make this worthwhile to the manufacturers, because apparently today's Linux-using customers are not enough. Considering the fact that these companies will not likely be interested in one-time sales, why not offer them something they might not otherwise have – a fanatical fan base of Linux users.

We need to create an organized incentive to not only reward people for accurately reporting what newly released hardware works, but also provide all involved with test-ready examples of the latest and greatest hardware to begin compatibility testing.

So what would the reward be for these compatibility testers? Keeping the assigned hardware after the review, which was provided by Google in the first place. This reward option would likely prove to be more cost effective than paying a wage to testers. It would provide a vested interest in seeing the gifted hardware work on a Google supported distribution as well.

• Better user-to-developer access. The software freedom concept is great and all, yet it leaves more problems than it solves for many people. Freely available code is important, but so are motivated, time-dedicated developers. Hobbyist developers are already stretched pretty thin as it is, despite the tremendous contributions they have already provided on behalf of all of us.

To further add onto the efforts of the existing developers, I believe that a bug tracking system with results is in order. Namely, pay a bounty through collection system like Fundable.org. The first benefit is seeing developers who are now able to make a supplemental income correcting bugs that tend to be put off as less important to basic functionality. And second, users will find that software regressions and other hassles are taken care of quicker, as the Google Linux effort becomes more popular. Google and motivated users alike could pool their financial resources to overcome any software related obstacles.

• Further refinement with the existing applications. The great thing about the open source applications provided with today's Linux distributions is the user's legal ability to make changes to the app, then send those changes to others to use. Unfortunately, there are some things that might not be seen as critical and thus, might not ever be given the polish that it might otherwise deserve.

So for Google to help jumpstart things a bit with consideration to various user interface improvements, new functionality and even providing an application face lift when needed would be a necessary addition to the points above.

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Expected Linux user reaction to Google stepping up.

Today's desktop Linux user base is as diverse as it is conflicted. On one hand, there would be one group of people who would immediately object to Google providing such focused direction to the course of desktop Linux as a platform, even as their own distribution.

On the other side of the virtual coin, desktop Linux users who are more interested in seeing Linux gaining a stronger market share would likely celebrate seeing Google enter the OS wars with this level of involvement. I suspect the level of enthusiasm displayed through the user blogs, news sites and even in the real world would be off the charts.

My own reaction to Google making a push into the OS marketplace.

Nothing would thrill me more than seeing Google taking on the task of creating their own distribution of Linux, for the reasons I highlighted above, and because it would offer:

• Improvement to availability of compatible hardware.

• Greater and more cost effective methods for improving software.

• A means for refining existing applications to provide the very best software possible on this platform.

Google jumping into the OS market would only work to serve all of us, as the company has illustrated time and again that they do support the basic fundamentals of open source software. Should Google opt not to get involved however, I see desktop Linux becoming something of a sideshow attraction. As new vendors such as ASUS, Everex, and others jump on board with second rate notebook solutions, I see the mainstream interest in desktop Linux becoming skewed by a handful of companies who have not made the kind of existing financial commitment to Linux as Google has over the years.

I would never wish to imply that the future of the Linux desktop is in the hands of a company such as Google. Still, the fact remains that Google is in a position to make the needed changes to the existing course we see mainstream Linux heading into before it is too late.

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