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July 9, 2009

Filed under: tech»os

Chromatic Veil

I don't get it.

So Google is introducing a Linux operating system with a new windowing layer based on its Webkit browser, Chrome. It's the thin client reinvented for the HTTP age. I guess from Google's perspective this makes sense: the more they can do to convince people that the Web is a valid application platform, the lower the resistance to their browser-based services, particularly in the lucrative enterprise market. If nothing else, it works as a proof of concept.

That much I get. What I don't understand is: who is this for on the user end? It's not a substitute for a full-sized OS stack--the browser is still, even with HTML 5, incapable of supplanting many basic applications, like listening to MP3s or doing serious document editing. It's certainly not for people who really leverage their CPU power, like gamers or media producers. Perhaps some day it will be--but I remember this idea from when it was the JavaPC and the Audrey, and somehow it has never had quite the mainstream appeal that its developers assumed it would. Ultimately, thin clients seem to leave even the most undemanding users wanting, for good reason.

Is it for netbooks? Most people seem to be following that line. But then, netbook manufacturers have been offering stripped-down Linux installations on these machines since their introduction, usually with a decent browser (Firefox) included. Certainly both Canonical and Microsoft see netbooks as target platforms--there are Netbook Remix editions of Ubuntu, and a major selling point of Windows 7 is its ability to run on low-end hardware. Either way, if I install ChromeOS, I just get a browser. If I install Linux or Windows, I get a browser that's equally good (if not identical), plus all the native applications my poor eyes can stand. Why would anyone, much less a hypothetical Windows user, switch to the former instead of the latter?

Does anyone think Google's going to do a better job than Ubuntu has done in the Linux space anyway? Or that Canonical will sit by and let it happen? I'm not a real Linux fan, and even I will admit that they've developed it into a usable desktop alternative. Ubuntu is a competitor, no doubt, and I simply don't see what Google can offer that they don't already have--or won't develop in response. And make no mistake: this is as much a threat to traditional Linux as it is to Windows, or Google would have simply worked with one of the existing distributions.

So yeah: I don't get it. When the company introduced the Chrome browser, that made business sense. Google is so intimately tied to the technology of the web, they needed to have a hand in its development. A browser gives them a platform for standards-based HTML/Javascript, as well as a place to experiment and advocate. And while it's hardly taken the world by storm, it's been a reasonable success in a world dominated by IE and Firefox. But stepping into the OS space, in such a strange way--and forking Linux to do it--doesn't seem to have any such business advantage. It certainly doesn't seem to offer anything that a simple port of the browser wouldn't. Clearly, Google wants ChromeOS. But if you think about it, does anyone else?

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