Google’s announcement that it is working on a lightweight, Web-based operating system for netbooks, to be called Chrome OS, is a surprise only in its timing. As I wrote last September, when Google released the Chrome browser and Sergey Brin denied that its ambitions went beyond building a fast, simple browser:
Don’t believe it for a second. Although the first version of Chrome has a half-finished feel and runs only on Windows, a close look at its features and underlying design reveals a far more dramatic goal. Chrome aims to take on not just Internet Explorer’s 75% share of the browser market but Windows’ dominance of the desktop itself.
Chrome was designed less as a competitor to the feature-rich Internet Explorer and Firefox than as a container for running Web-based applications. That made it, in effect, the user interface for a Web-based OS. Add a kernel (Google, unsurprisingly, is using the Linux kernel as the core), a window manager, and assorted other pieces of OS infrastructure and you can have a simple, fast, and robust operating system without a massive development effort.
If Google's faith in Web applications is well placed, then it is right in thinking that big, rich operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS X are doomed. I suspect the Googlers are half right: Rich client-based applications will remain important for games, content creation, and any computationally intense work, while Web based apps will dominate for content consumption, especially on the go. No operating system around today is really designed for this lightweight experience, which is one reason Google felt compelled to step in.
I also suspect that some at Google were not entirely happy with the the direction that its Android mobile OS project is taking. Numerous netbook makers have made plans to install Android on small laptops. But Android was designed for handsets and a move to bigger devices is problematic. At a minimum, porting Android to larger screens would require major modifications in the user interface and possible some deeper components, such as the file system. This would lead to what computer scientists call "forking," the splitting of an operating system into branches that have serious incompatibilities between them.
The push for Android on netbooks was being driven by manufacturers' dissatisfaction with both Microsoft and current Linux distributions. In some cases, the computer makers wanted to build netbooks based on the ARM processor, such as Qualcomm's Snapdragon platform, rather than an Intel or AMD x86 processor, and Android is designed for ARM. Done right, Chrome would satisfy those desires while helping Google protect the integrity of Android.
The bottom line is that Chrome could produce a hefty payout for Google without a massive investment. And that makes it look like a winner all around.