Google Chrome OS and the Open Source Desktop

Monday Jul 13th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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Given the sharing between the major free desktops like KDE and GNOME, any promising ideas in Chrome OS will also be borrowed by the major desktops.

Remember vaporware? That's the name that used to be applied to software that was described in glittering generalities before it was written. It wasn't a compliment.

But, after reading all the speculation in the last few days, I'm convinced that vaporware is a term that we need to revive and apply to the Google Chrome Operating System. Without some perspective, we can't even begin to consider how the announcement might affect the free software world.

For anyone with a long memory, the initial announcement for Chrome OS was a classic piece of vaporware. The code won't be available until "later this year," and the final release will happen in the second half of 2010 and be targeted at netbooks.

Yet that didn't stop Google executives Sundar Pichai and Linus Upson from describing Chrome OS as the hottest thing since the iPhone. It will be "lightweight," Pichai and Upson decreed, with a "minimal" interface, and built for "speed, simplicity, and security." But the real lack of concrete information was revealed by the continual repetition of the key point that Chrome will be an operating system based on web applications – without any specifics about exactly what that will mean.

So far, the only concrete information is that Google is working with major hardware and software manufacturers like Adobe, ASUS, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Toshiba. Even there, we don't know what level of involvement is implied by "working with."

The blunt truth is that we have no idea how Chrome OS will look or perform. Without that information, we haven't a clue how successfully it will compete, either.

The most we can do is look at such things as Google's past performance, its reputation in the free software community, the market for netbooks and web apps, and the probable responses by existing free software vendors like Ubuntu's Canonical.

All these considerations raise sweeping questions about Chrome OS's probability of success -- questions that, by the time Chrome OS is actually available, are sure to be obsolete, or replaced by other ones.

Google's track record

For many analysts outside the free software world, the announcement of Chrome OS is a sign that a competitor that could match Microsoft in reputation and clout had finally emerged. Others with free software said much the same, and are preparing to cheer GNU/Linux on to victory under Google's banner.

The trouble is, contrary to the spam in your Trash folder, size isn't everything. While Google has all the resources to compete against its proprietary and free software rivals, in the past, it has not used those resources as strategically as it might.

So far, Google has showed itself to be a first-rate development shop with projects like Gears or the Chrome Browser. However, it has been substantially less successful at marketing and monetizing projects. While projects like Google Earth or Street View or even Android attract all sorts of media attention, Google has yet to wean itself away from its dependency on search ads for its main revenue.

Considering this record, I have to ask: Does anyone at Google know how to compete in the marketplace, let alone go toe-to-toe against Microsoft? Can Google hire experts who can? Are its executives even aware of the need?

Google's FOSS community reputation

Another aspect that Google might need to overcome is its mixed reputation in the free and open source software (FOSS) world.

On the one hand, Google has released the code for many of its projects, and its annual Summer of Code mentoring program has benefited free software projects tremendously.

On the other hand, you don't have to search very far before you find complaints about Google doing most of the real development before releasing the code, or trying to strictly control projects once they are public.

For instance, in one well-publicized case last a year, a small project called Clipperz that was using Google's software repositories tried to use the Affero General Public License, a FOSS license specifically designed for web applications. Google responded by denying the project server space. Apparently, Google was not going to tolerate the extension of FOSS ideas into an area that it still hoped to control and perhaps monetize.

Admittedly, Chrome OS will need to appeal to ordinary users. All the same, Google's reputation in the FOSS community matters because the corporation is hoping to receive some assistance from the FOSS community. Also, many of the early adopters will probably be from the community as well.

Moreover, as the new entry in the market, Chrome OS could benefit from being seen as community-oriented. If Google is seen as manipulating FOSS entirely for its own interests, then how will its image be any better than that of its monopolistic competitors?

The netbook market

In mid-2009, releasing a netbook product may seem a reasonable goal. However, whether the idea will seem equally sensible in the second half of 2010 is another matter.

For one thing, there's the timing. In the second half of 2010, the global economy may just be emerging from the current recession. That may not be the time to launch a new product no matter what your resources are. A year from now, will most people and businesses still be nursing their existing hardware rather than replacing it?

Even more importantly, a year from now, the netbook market may have hit saturation level. At the very least, it will be a very well developed market, with the major players well defined. Such a market is much harder to break into than one that is just emerging. Is there any reason to think that Chrome OS will be so compelling that it will overcome this market, the way that the iPhone did in mobile devices?

These are questions that any company would need to consider. However, for a product based on FOSS, they are especially important. GNU/Linux operating systems were initially successful in the netbook market, but, to a large extent, they seem to have been driven out by the introduction of rival Windows products. If that trend continues, then the market reception of Chrome OS products could be especially rocky.

The appeal of web apps

One of the few concrete pieces of information about Chrome OS is that it will be built around web applications. Possibly, Chrome OS will be exactly what is needed to make Google Apps successful at last. However, possibly Google is unable to see the market for its own reflection?

Web applications are popular among developers because of the challenges involved in their coding. Technophiles like them (or used to) because they are new. But among the general users, their success is more mixed.

Most people have probably tried web applications. Their lack of features, though, to say nothing of concerns about accessibility and privacy, have kept web apps from being as widely adopted as pundits predicted.

Unless Chrome OS includes features that can overcome these concerns, then the very web-centricity that is meant as selling point could keep people from using it. While Chrome OS is being developed, can Google fix its web apps so that they have the features of KOffice, let alone OpenOffice.org? Can Chrome OS provide security features to reduce privacy concerns? Could the right mixture of local and web apps satisfy people? Do users even want to rely on web apps? Contrary to Pichai and Upson's assumptions, whether millions of users exist who prefer web apps is not at all certain. The real market for web apps may be far smaller.

FOSS strikes back

Yet another unknown is how existing GNU/Linux distributions are going to react to Chrome OS. You can be sure, though, that leading commercial distributions like Canonical's Ubuntu will have strategies in place long before Chrome OS is released.

The free desktop is currently undergoing major innovation, so factoring into a possible shift to web apps will hardly be a major stretch. Moreover, if other distributions allow users to work easily with any web apps while Chrome OS encourages the use of Google Apps, then they could have a distinct advantage simple because they offer choice.

In fact, considerable work has already been done in integrating web apps into upcoming versions of KDE 4. These include plans to allow widgets to be exchanged between computers in KDE 4.4, as well as integrated access to online resources in applications like Amarok and DigiKam, and the social desktop, that will help put KDE users in touch with those nearest them, or who share the same hardware.

These ideas are just as experimental as a desktop based on web applications, and whether they will be successful remains to be seen. However, given that they will be integrated into existing applications, and focus on the social web rather than on applications, they are probably easier for most users to accept than Chrome OS's apparent plans.

And, considering how ideas flow between the major free desktops, with KDE adopting them, GNOME will likely have them soon as well, particularly if they prove popular. For that matter, any promising ideas in Chrome OS will also be borrowed by the major desktops.

In other words, Chrome OS will probably not be nearly as revolutionary as its announcements imply. When the first Chrome OS netbook rolls off the production line, it is likely to be greeted by existing FOSS products that match it feature for feature.

Just another player

Predicting the future from the past or present is notoriously unreliable. France tried that in the 1930s and produced the Maginot Line, only to have its supposedly impregnable defenses overrun in days by the new tactics of the German blitzkrieg.

However, based on Google's past performance and the potential problems of the marketplace, I can say that Chrome OS is far from a guaranteed success. Entering a new market is never easy for any corporation, and Google has yet to show the agility that suggests it can do so successfully, even when conditions are favorable. Probably the real key to success will be Google's ability to encourage its partners in hardware to market and promote new products.

Yet even with industry-wide cooperation, the success of Chrome OS is far from assured. It seems likely be that Chrome OS will be far less original than the vaporware reports suggest. Google can undoubtedly bankroll it indefinitely, but a sense of strategy is even more important than funds.

Far from revolutionizing the netbook market, Chrome OS may be destined to be simply another player -- perhaps one occupying a particular niche, and perhaps not even the most successful one. At this point, saying anything more is impossible.

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