Google Chrome OS: Desktop Linux's Last Chance

Wednesday Jul 22nd 2009 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

If Google’s Chrome OS succeeds, it changes the entire Linux community in one swoop and risks marginalizing other distros. But if it fails, it’ll be a strong indication Linux just doesn’t have what it takes to make it big.

“The year of Linux” – For how many years now have we come across this headline, usually prefaced by a bygone year?

It must be for at least ten years. But even now, despite the apparent popularity of distros such as Ubuntu, and even green shoots of interest from big OEMs such as Dell, desktop Linux languishes with a sub 1% market share. And what growth that is occurring happens at a snail’s pace.

Is there any hope that Linux can actually make significant gains and become a credible alternative to Windows and Mac OS X? Well, there is, and help is coming from the Internet’s 1,000-pound gorilla – Google.

Indeed, the search giant’s entry into the world of Linux represents a turning point, and could see it make or break Linux.

Earlier this month Google announced that it was developing a lightweight, open source, Linux-based operating system designed for netbooks. The Chrome OS isn’t expected to be available to consumers until the second half of 2010, but betas should be available for developers to play with much sooner than that.

Google’s entry into the OS market has been rumored for some time now, but this is the first time that we’ve had official confirmation that the company is actively working on an operating system.

But why work on an OS? Well, as far as Google is concerned, consumers want computers to get better, and in order for that to happen, there’s a need for a completely new OS build around speed, security, and getting people onto the web with the least fuss possible.

But rather than design a whole new OS from the ground up, Google turned its attention to Linux. After all, why reinvent the wheel? Linux is lightweight, it’s fast and it’s pretty robust when it comes to thwarting hackers.

Oh, and it’s open source. This makes Linux the ideal foundation for Google to build an OS. Is Google really that altruistic? Maybe, but I think that it has more to do with Google wanting a platform that it can use to push its myriad of online services, which in turn are plastered with ads, which in turn generates a pile of cash for Google. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Google Chrome OS will cause waves. It’s bound to put Microsoft on edge, and if it starts to gain some traction, it’ll undoubtedly make Apple sit up and pay attention, too.

But it’s also an interesting time for the Linux community as a whole. After all, just as Ubuntu has pushed most other distros into the shadows when it comes to media attention, a successful Chrome OS could push Ubuntu into the shadows, while at the same time forcing many other Linux distros into oblivion.

Even if Chrome OS only managed to grab hold of a 0.5 per cent market share in, say, a year, it’ll be in a position where it will command quite a clout. After all, the iPhone OS market share is about 0.6 per cent, and think how much influence it exerts.

And if you think that grabbing a one percent of the browser market is wishful thinking, consider how popular netbooks are right now, and given the tough economic times, how people might not be inclined to hand over $45 for a copy of Windows 7 Starter edition?

Many people feel that the fact that Google’s Chrome browser has failed to ignite much interest beyond geeks means that Chrome OS is destined to go the same way. I disagree.

While geeks and pundits are all worked up about what browser is best, the Average Joe doesn’t really care about browsers. Browser are all free and the advantage of shifting from one browser to another just doesn’t stir people. An OS, on the other hand, is different. People buying and running a computer are handing over a significant chunk of change for their OS.

This makes a free OS far more compelling than a free browser. If you take two identical netbooks on sale, one retailing for $340 running Windows 7 Starter, and the other retailing for $295 and running Google Chrome OS, don’t you think that’s going to grab people’s attention?

But what happens if Chrome OS flops?

Well, Microsoft and Apple get to breathe a sigh of relief because they can continue to squeeze money from their respective cash cows. But it would spell bad news for Linux. If Google can’t make a success of Linux, then it’s easy to conclude that no one could.

After all, Google has a reach like no other company. Through search, and email, and Flickr and YouTube, other online services such as mapping, Google can get enormous exposure for a project such as Chrome OS. If the project fails, it could be that people at large just aren’t moved enough to try a new OS.

A failure on the part of Chrome OS won’t kill off Linux, but it could well put an end of any illusions that Linux is going to make a big hit any time soon.

In fact, a Chrome OS failure could set back Linux a decade. Linux would still have a place of devices, such as cell phones and GPS receivers, but mainstream aspirations would have to be put on hold for some time.

So, Linux has reached an interesting point. If Google’s Chrome OS succeeds, then it changes the whole Linux community in one swoop and risks marginalizing other distros. But if it fails, it’ll be a huge failure for Linux, and a strong indication that no matter how much of a push it gets, Linux just doesn’t have what it takes to make it big.

At which point we can retire “The year of Linux” for a few years.

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