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Google's Chrome OS stands to make waves

Google is ambitious, there’s no question about that. It has both the privilege and necessity of being so and, given its position as a major player in multiple facets of the technology arena, it’s got resources and opportunities that most other companies can’t hope to match. So if you had to pick one company to enter the operating system market, a product category that’s been largely bifurcated for the last two decades, Google’s a pretty good bet.

While Google’s Chrome OS—shown off at a Google media shindig on Thursday—is still a year away from its actual release, it’s still worth talking about now. Why? Because despite Google’s attempt to downplay the importance of the “operating system” as a concept, the OS defines the computing experience, and the introduction of a major force like Google in that space is unquestionably going to shake things up. Even a year out, I have to admit a certain amount of excitement about Chrome OS if for no other reason than the change it brings to a long stagnant market—it's a viable third-party candidate.

Chrome OS is a product of ambition, but it’s also tinged with a certain amount of idealism: that this is how computers today should work. The way Google explains it, these days most people fire up their computers to get on the Web, so why not eliminate all the cruft between them and that experience?

In theory, it’s a great idea: out with the old and in with the new. As Google’s introductory presentation took great pains to repeat, in Chrome OS the browser is the operating system. Your “applications” are the Web apps that you’re already using: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, YouTube—even Microsoft’s Web version of Office 2010, as Google executive Sundar Pichai showed off. All your data is stored in the cloud, meaning it’s accessible wherever you go. (Apps can store data on your computer for use when you’re offline, but they must specifically be designed to take advantage of the feature.)

You might very well call Chrome OS the killer app for the netbook—or, if you’re somewhat more sanguine about the netbook’s place in the market, a vindication of its concept. Chrome OS may also be the fulfillment of the much-bandied concept of appliance computing, in which your computer experience is more like that of turning on your TV—another comparison Google took pains to hammer home during its presentation.

As a tech-savvy computer user who frequently deals with less-confident users—hi, mom and dad!—I can see Chrome OS’s appeal. For one thing, just eliminating the step of launching a Web browser will probably save time and headaches as in avoiding having to distinguish between Web sites and files and programs on the computer itself. For another, users are already accustomed to managing their data via applications like iPhoto and iTunes instead of via the filesystem, so off-shoring that one step further isn’t going to add a lot of confusion. And heck, while Chrome OS doesn’t entirely get rid of the need for data backups, considering that most people already don’t back up their data it doesn’t really make the situation any worse.

Of course, the tree of computing liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of old technology. Apple started the dance that led to the elimination of the floppy drive ten years ago when it introduced the iMac; since then, it’s been a leader in advancing other technologies like USB and Wi-Fi and pruning those that have withered. Chrome OS is likewise hastening to off old technologies. Conventional hard drives are not supported, for example, just solid-state storage. That means faster performance, but it also means pricier components—for now. But the popularity of those components, if Chrome OS catches on, will help lower prices and availability.

And if Chrome OS catches on, Apple stands to reap benefits too. Chrome OS could be the tipping point in the long-gestating shift from a PC-centric computing experience to a Web-centric one, and the Web is the ultimate platform—for the most part, it works on any computer. The more resources that get shifted to platform-agnostic technologies, the bigger the win not just for the Mac but for other platforms: the iPhone, for example.

Of course, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem there, too, since the accelerated adoption of those technologies will depend strongly on how quickly Chrome OS catches on. Google was loathe to release any details of hardware or price, other than to say that it’s working with netbook makers and that the prices would be in the range that consumers had come to expect. That’s pretty vague, though: it could easily mean anywhere between $400 and $700, and you’re already pretty close to an intro-level MacBook at the high-end of that range.

That leads me to one thing that struck me during Google’s presentation: how very much the company was starting to sound like Apple. Google executive Pichai spoke of the importance of the end-to-end user experience and said that the company was working with vendors to specify reference hardware on which Chrome OS would be guaranteed to run. That sort of control over hardware and software certainly sounds more like Apple than it does like Microsoft or Linux, which tout their compatibility with the full range of generic PC hardware. More to the point, the particular features mentioned were things like a full-size keyboard, a comfortable trackpad, and specific display resolutions—all factors that Apple has emphasized in the past as differentiating its laptops from netbooks.

Chrome OS actually reminds me a lot of another purported revolutionary technology to come out of Mountain View in recent months: Google Wave. Just as Wave was Google’s vision of what e-mail and Internet communication would be like if developed today instead of thirty years ago, Chrome OS is the company’s vision of a truly “modern” computer operating system.

But where Google Wave has elicited a lot of confusion and snark—personally, I think it’s a solution in search of a problem—Chrome OS is eminently sensible. Computers have entrenched themselves in our life like no other technology: I look around the café I’m sitting in and I see a dozen people on their laptops, a ubiquity that could only have been dreamt of by, say, makers of portable televisions.

It may still be a long way off, but Chrome OS certainly has the potential to disrupt the OS market. Netbooks—and don’t forget the operative part of that moniker is “net”—have rapidly gained in popularity over the past couple years and an OS built specifically for the hardware makes a compelling argument over the current leader in that market which, lest you forget, is still Windows.

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