Chrome OS's impact? It's too early to tell

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So Google’s going to release its own operating system, Chrome OS, targeted at netbooks and those who spend most of their time on the Web. Apparently, some people believe this move will force Apple to change its own product line and lower prices. Perhaps that will turn out to be true… but to make such a statement today is simply ludicrous.

Google Chrome OS isn’t expected to appear on machines until the second half of 2010. For those scoring at home, that’s at least 12 months away. To get there, Google admits it’s “going to need a lot of help from the open source community to accomplish this vision.” Think about that statement—Google is relying on help from a community that just heard about this project Wednesday, and yet it plans on having an operating system installed and shipping on machines in about a year’s time.

Granted, a lot of the work is done already, as Chrome OS is based on Linux. Still, the company’s admission that it needs a lot of help to get this project done doesn’t really inspire a lot of confidence that it will be done on a timely basis. But forget all that—let’s assume it will ship on time, next summer or fall. That still doesn’t mean that Apple (and Microsoft) have anything to fear from Chrome OS as of today.

Why not? Because, really, those companies—and we—don’t know anything about Chrome OS! If you strip out the marketing spin from the Chrome OS announcement, about all we know about this OS is that:

  • It will be designed for speed, simplicity and security.
  • The user experience is Web-centric.
  • The OS will be based on Linux, with the Google Chrome browser running in a new windowing system.
  • Apps will run inside Google Chrome—the Web is the platform.
  • It will run on x86 and ARM CPUs.
  • Data will live in “the cloud,” so that it’s accessible anywhere.
  • Chrome OS will be free, which means advertising.

Beyond that, we don’t know much at all. Will developers be able to write applications that run on the Linux kernel, outside of the browser? I would expect not, given the Web-centric nature of Google’s description of the OS. Will they be able to store data locally? Again, who knows; Google makes it clear that accessing your data from anywhere is a key element of this project, which would imply that the cloud is the principal storage location. What control will the user have over this OS? How will the windowing system work? Is there an equivalent to Finder or Windows Explorer? What happens when you need to use your netbook somewhere where you can’t get online? Will it be usable? Will you be able to have a mirrored copy of your cloud-based data store?

Answers to these questions aren’t likely to be had for many months to come, if not a year or so. So when I read that Chrome OS is going to force Apple to change its business model, I have to question the rationale for the article—is it just to garner page views with a controversial approach, or does the writer honestly think an unreleased OS with an unknown set of features is something Apple will spend energy worrying about today?

As I look at what we do know about Chrome OS, I actually come to the opposite conclusion: Apple has nothing to fear from Chrome OS. That opinion may change once we know more, of course, but as of today, Chrome OS strikes me as a niche product. It will appeal to those who are always online, who are never out of reach of the Internet, who desire to keep their documents online and not on their own machines, and don’t mind advertising intruding on their operating system. That may describe some people, but I don’t think it describes anywhere near a majority of people.

Perhaps my opinion will change once we know more about Chrome OS, but based on what I know now, I won’t be standing in line to pick up a Chrome OS-powered netbook next fall. I also don’t think Apple will radically alter its business model due to Chrome OS—Apple’s product line is aimed at a much wider swath of the population than it appears is being targeted by Chrome OS, so it’s not really a competitive threat. I think Microsoft has more reason to worry than does Apple: Chrome OS, if successful, is likely to replace Windows installations on netbooks, and that must make Redmond a bit nervous.

If nothing else, Google has shaken up the operating system business quite a bit, with nothing more than an announcement of a future product. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next year or so, as they try to turn that announcement into a real tangible product.

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