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Chrome OS: Windows killer?

Or will it just leave smudgy fingermarks?

Top three mobile application threats

Google’s announcement last week concerning its plans to bring out a fully fledged operating system was inevitably going to put the cat amongst the twitterati. “Let’s see,” asked the pundits, “who else makes operating systems?”

Of course the intention was to have the Microsoft marketing monster shaking in its boots, not least to stave off a similar intent by the latter as it launches a number of online services of its own.

That’s the top line, but is GoogleOS – sorry, Chrome – really any more than a Google-branded Linux derivative? The answer, in true Vicky Pollard style, is “Yes, but no, but yes.”

From an OS perspective it will, I imagine, be ‘less than Linux’, ie performance-optimised from the kernel up with no unnecessary bells and whistles. There's a number of compiler switches to be tweaked and in all probability the code could always be more optimised.

But also, by first creating and then open sourcing, Google may be sidestepping some of the politics that have sometimes got in the way of kernel developments. By producing an updated version of the kernel, rolling it out and testing it to ensure it fits with its own requirements, and then presenting it to Lord High Torvalds’ inner circle as a fait accompli, that might avoid all the nasty geeky bickering.

From that point on, aye, it’s a Google-branded Linux derivative. Probably with a clever way of pre-cached booting (therefore very fast boot times – I don’t know why all operating systems don’t do this), a more restrictive hardware spec a la Apple (no bad thing), and optimisation for all those multimedia codecs that are an essential part of the modern teen’s internet experience.

From a threat perspective, I do wonder if Chrome OS could turn out more of a challenge to Apple than to Microsoft, in the same way that ‘they’ are predicting cheap Android-based clones will be next year’s chav gadget. With computers as with handhelds, if the hardware and software spec are better locked down, manufacturers are more focused on design attributes which drive the consumerist desires we all share. I don’t know what the "sleek must-have webtop of 2010, based on Chrome OS" will look like, but I can imagine the screen envy.

Chrome OS could also be a threat to Linux itself – or at least to some of the smorgasbord of distributions that exist. I’m all for diversity, but from where I’m sitting the distro situation is a major blocker to Linux adoption, particularly on the desktop. Just think of the fuss around the number of Windows 7 SKUs Microsoft talks about – 6 – and then extend the same confusion to the tens of Linux distributions.

Meanwhile, over in the corporate world, things move far more slowly than the pundits would like (indeed, sometimes it just stays the same). Microsoft’s doing a good job of moving beyond Vista as quickly as possible. Windows 7 is pretty good, but even with the Vista debacle we haven’t seen businesses expressing too much desire to move off the Microsoft platform. Many are still on XP because, from their perspective, it does the job.

It’s not just about the OS either. I was on the train a few nights ago when some idiot was telling the whole carriage how he had no intention of being forced to upgrade to Excel 2007 when he was perfectly happy with Excel 2003 – and the year is now 2009. Outside of the platform, people use stuff because other people use stuff – there’s a combination of shared risk, good-enoughness, lethargy and compatibility at play, and whether good or bad, it would take a pretty seismic shift to wean the western world off Windows.

What of emerging economies? The word is that while use of open source is growing, software piracy is growing faster and (like many major vendors) Microsoft has largely given up fighting it for now. There’s more – namely that Chrome OS is intended as a web-friendly OS, to take advantage of all those wonderful apps provided "from the cloud". Such a model relies on reliable connectivity – which is as much of an issue in non-western countries as it is in rural areas anywhere in the world.

For a low power, low cost internet access device, I’m sure Google is capable of enabling OEMS to produce cracking little devices, cheaply. As Google is not a premium brand, however, I doubt that we’ll see many VPs of Marketing showing off their Chrome netbooks in the airport lounge. And it remains equally unlikely that the corporate world will adopt Chrome OS to any extent.

Freeform Dynamics Ltd

Top three mobile application threats

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