Monday, July 13, 2009

Google Announces "Chrome" Operating System

Google Announces "Chrome" Operating System
By Rob Pegoraro
July 8, 2009

Google calls the new Web-centric, laptop operating system it announced last night "Chrome OS," but the company could just as well have titled this software "Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's Revenge."

Jackson, you may recall, presided over much of United States. v. Microsoft, the antitrust case in which Microsoft was found guilty of abusing its market power. In that role, Jackson wrote a "Findings of Fact" document outlining an alternative to the Redmond, Wash., company's domination of the personal-computing market--applications that ran inside a Web browser, thus making the browser into a software platform he called "middleware."

... to the extent the array of applications relying solely on middleware comes to satisfy all of a user's needs, the user will not care whether there exists a large number of other applications that are directly compatible with the underlying operating system.

A federal appeals court took Jackson off the Microsoft case in 2001, citing biased conduct, and the final settlement wound up being far gentler than Jackson had advocated.

But here we are, eight years later, and Web-hosted applications--say, Gmail, Google Documents, Google Calender, Google Maps--are not only commonplace, they're rendering entire categories of software obsolete.

With Chrome OS, Google aims to thicken Jackson's browser "middleware" layer into an entire operating system. This open-source software--the Mountain View, Calif., company hopes to release it to developers by the end of this year, then see it ship on ultralight netbook laptops from other vendors in the second half of 2010--will only feature one traditional program, Google's Chrome browser, running on top of a version of the Linux open-source operating system.

(You could say Google plans to integrate the browser with the operating system--one of the things that landed Microsoft in Jackson's court.)

The idea is that for every possible task a netbook user might want to perform, a Web-hosted application will be ready. These Web programs could come from anybody and would function just as well in other browsers on other operating systems, since Google's browser relies on open Web standards. No Internet connection? Both Google's own software and a growing set of Web specifications allow for offline use within a browser.

So Chrome OS users will enjoy a wealth of programs, many presumably free. And Google will further its not-so-secret plot to get us to spend even more time on the Web, increasing our odds of encountering Google's services, sites and ads.

This strategy, even with Google's vast user base as a potential audience, may not work. First of all, Chrome OS meets the book definition of "vaporware," software announced far before its purported shipping date. Those of you thinking your next laptop could run Chrome OS had better be patient.

Even if Google sticks to its schedule, you could see a selection of only one or two Chrome netbooks, just as smartphone buyers looking for a device running Google's Android software have only had one choice in the U.S. so far, T-Mobile's G1.

Software developers, in turn, could reject Google's Web-only invitation in favor of writing traditional programs that aren't confined to a browser. When Apple tried to tell developers in 2007 that they should content themselves with writing Web-based programs for the iPhone, they refused to buy that argument. "No, thank you" one summarized in a characteristic blog post.

Finally, users might realize that they don't need to wait for Google to deliver a simple, secure, open-source, Web-centric netbook operating system. The versions of Linux shipping on many netbooks already match most of this description (except that they also allow their users to install other programs). Want to turn a Linux netbook into a Chrome lookalike? Set its Firefox browser to run on startup in full-screen mode, then lock out access to every other application on the netbook.

The same could be done with netbooks running Android, already in varying stages of development from such firms as Asus and Nvidia.

Chrome may make it easier for people to switch to an entirely Web-based computing existence--for one thing, the Google brand name may be an easier sell in the mass market than different distributions of Linux. But by itself, it only builds on what's been happening for several years.

In other words, Jackson doesn't need Chrome OS to be proved right. And Microsoft doesn't need Chrome OS to feel threatened.

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