Google's Chrome Operating System: We've Got It All Wrong

“A real rival to Windows.” “Google drops a nuclear bomb on Microsoft.” It all sounds so dramatic and exciting, the kind of story we journalists love. But I can’t help feeling most of the coverage of Google’s announcement of its Chrome operating system missed the real point.

Most people seem to assume that the Chrome operating system is intended to replace Windows on personal computers, and that it will be a failure if it doesn’t. Many people also believe that Google is either off its rocker in jumping into operating systems or doing it out of spite for Microsoft. Although Google may well be overreaching here, and it faces many challenges in creating and getting support for a new operating system, I think those assumptions are largely flawed.

It’s an easy story to pit Google against Microsoft, partly because there’s some truth to the increasing tension between the two tech titans. But they’re each representative of a bigger battle going on, one that would happen regardless: the inexorable migration of computing (except for the interface to the computer you need to put your fingers on, of course) from the desktop and laptop to the Internet.

Essentially, Google is attempting to create an operating system tuned to the needs of the Post-PC Age, as my former colleague Richard Brandt, author of the book Inside Larry and Sergey’s Brain, . That age has not arrived yet, and it may not arrive completely for a long time, but the trend is apparent: People increasingly are doing more and more of their work online, for which they don’t need or want the cost and performance overhead of a traditional PC operating system. That goes double for the vast majority of people around the world who have no PC at all—and something cheap beyond a cell phone that gives them the full experience of the Web would open up a vast new population of Web users.

And the bottom line is that anything that makes it easier for all those people to use Google services and view its advertising helps Google.

First of all, let's put to rest the notion that Google expects to replace Windows, at least anytime soon. "It's not a direct assault on Windows at all," says Forrester Research analyst Frank Gillett. "Chrome OS will be streamlined and tuned for interacting with online services and the personal cloud."

In other words, it's intended at least at first to provide an additional option for the increasing number of people who do most of their work online to do so quickly and cheaply. What would a personal computer outfitted with Chrome OS look like? Michael J. Miller at has an idea:

It wouldn't be what we think of as a PC; instead it would be much more purpose-built for surfing the web than even today's netbooks. It wouldn't run any local applications: no Microsoft Office, of course; but also no Open Office, iTunes, or even a local mail client, although a webmail client could be cached by Google Gears. But it could boot much faster, be more secure, and could be less expensive. ...

These would really be "companions" to full PCs, not replacements. To a great extent, this is also what Qualcomm is talking about with its "smartbook" concept, and the other ARM-based vendors as well. So Google isn't really trying to create a new device; but rather be the software for it.

In fact, I'm not sure why Chrome OS couldn't be a second operating system on the same machine. After all, it's free, and both disk and flash-memory storage is pretty cheap, so I'm not sure I see much downside in installing both on a machine. And people are already doing this sort of thing on the Apple Mac, in some cases running Windows when they need to run a Windows-only application.

So if all you want to do is get online to browse the Web, check email, view video, tweet or update your Facebook page, edit some online documents, buy a book from think about it, that's a lot of what we do on a PC today--you get online in a few seconds and just go. If you work on a plane or use a Windows application like Word, go ahead and boot that up just like you can do on a Mac outfitted with Parallels. "I just want my s--t to run," says Dan Florio, developer of the iPhone app RunPee. "Chrome OS is sounding like the right idea."

Viewed in this light, Google's decision to create an operating system seems like a pretty obvious thing to do. In fact, you'd almost have to say they'd be kind of stupid not to do it, given the direction of user behavior and the advance of technologies that enable more and more online-only work. "The world is hungry for innovation on the operating system," says Sebastien de Halleux, cofounder and COO of the social gaming developer Playfish. "This is coming at the right time."

This is all assuming Google can pull it off. This clearly won't be easy, or Google wouldn't have announced it a year in advance and called for the help of outside developers. But it may be somewhat simpler than it looks. For one thing, it's building the OS atop a Linux "kernel," or foundation. So it doesn't have to reinvent everything, just leverage what already has been created.

Google also doesn't even need to attract developers to the OS, at least not in the usual way. Software programmers need only create a Web application using common platforms such as Adobe Flash, and they should run on the Chrome OS. Indeed, for that reason, one might make the case, as some have, that Chrome OS isn't even that big a deal.

Finally, Google doesn't need to knock it out of the park. As Rich Brandt puts it:

The Chrome OS is a catalyst. It will show others the way, and act as the seed that moves many industries, from telecommunications to computers, and perhaps someday to television and books, into the Post-PC era and into the true Internet Age.

Remember when Google made noises about bidding for new wireless spectrum in late 2007, only to bow out? That resulted in competition in the wireless business revving up, arguably to Google's advantage, and on Verizon's dime. Likewise, although Google's Chrome browser has minuscule market share, you can be sure the enthusiasm of some Web influentials for its speed hasn't escaped Microsoft or Mozilla, which will keep improving their browsers to avoid losing any more share.

I'm not saying that Google is above throwing a few marbles in Microsoft's way. It may not work, but if anything, Google executives have a fiduciary duty to do so, because that's business. You don't need to assume Eric Schmidt is desperately obsessed with Microsoft to find logical reasons for what Google's doing. (In fact, there's probably a greater case to be made that Microsoft has been obsessed with Google for a long time. Schmidt himself was wary of Google doing an operating system, he said last Thursday.)

All that said, there's a real danger that a Google operating system further stirs up Microsoft's wrath, and if it does, the software giant could inflict some damage on Google. Even more worrisome, Anil Dash makes a compelling case that in announcing plans for an operating system--whatever kind it turns out to be--Google has reached its own "Microsoft moment":

The era of Google as a trusted, "non-evil" startup whose actions are automatically assumed to be benevolent is over. ... Google is entering the moment where it has to be over-careful not to offend, and extremely attentive to whether they are treading lightly.

Is Google evil? It doesn't matter. They've reached the point of corporate ambition and changing corporate culture that means they're going to be perceived as if they are. Whether they're able to truly internalize that lesson, accept it, and act accordingly will determine if they're able to extend their dominance in the years to come.

Such existential concerns are real, as one prominent Googler, Matt Cutts, acknowledged. But the fact remains that Google continues to face an aggressive Microsoft that requires it to think outside the search box. Microsoft's new search engine Bing, let's not forget, is the default search engine for its industry-leading Internet Explorer browser.

And if Microsoft responds by fighting back and making sure Windows works better for online applications (thus preventing Chrome OS from getting a foothold), that can only help Google as the key economic beneficiary of anything that makes the Web more useful.

Sure, this is a risky bet for Google. But it might be even riskier not to make it.

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