Friday, July 10, 2009

On The Supposed Doom of ChromeOS

Google announced it will enter the general-purpose desktop operating system market with the launch of an operating system it will call Chrome, and already it is being declared that "The Google OS Is Doomed".

A few comments on the points raised by the article:

"Linux is hard to love."
Let's face it, Unix is no picnic either, but look at MacOS X. Any argument that can be claimed in connection with barriers to Linux adoption were an order of magnitude worse a decade ago when Apple announced its next operating system was Unix it bought from NeXT. Apple doesn't even hide that its operating system is Unix: it's a selling point.

If Google's OS offers access to Linux and its common shells as readily as MacOS X offers access to BSD and its shells, Google will have both Linux converts and people who like having a huge existing application base of non-Google software that runs as-is. Like, say, OpenOffice. However, the genius of Chrome will not be that it is Linux any more than the genius of MacOS X was that it was Unix. The improvements of both operating systems will be enabling developers and users to do things easily and without the trouble often encuontered with some competing systems.

"We aren't ready to run everything on the Web."
And we're not expecting to with ChromeOS.

The existing Chrome browser allows offline work with intermittent updating. Having an OS that talks easily with Google's cloud but isn't dependent on it for its essential function will enable development of applications that satisfy users' need for stability and predictability while making things like backup and synchronization a snap. All you'll need, in all likelihood, is your GMail account. You can get your data anyplace you can reach Google, and in all likelihood your desktop and your applications as well. Turning any notebook you hold into an access point to all your data, rather than relying on one single notebook that can fail and create a choke point, might be valuable indeed.

Never experience lock-in again? Hallelujah!

"Microsoft is a formidable opponent."
Indeed. You can see how formidable Microsoft is in this space by noticing how swiftly (hee hee) the company can turn out improved new versions of its flagship operating system products and productivity suites, and noticing how Apple's share has eroded before Microsoft's unassailable monopoly, and how Microsoft has come to dominate music (heh) and has had such consistently profitable gaming business (snicker) that competitors have been frozen out of launching meaningful competitors, much less making any profit.

Let's face it, this argument was plausible a decade and a half ago, but the emperor's nakedness is at this late date not just yesterday's news, it's old news. Everybody knows Microsoft is a chump now, milking an installed base and the inertia of applications dependent on Microsoft's APIs. Microsoft will dutifully prolong its advantageous relationship with OEMs (who suffer serflike dependence, down to changing the back-ends of their web sites to mollify Redmond) and thereby prevent users from enjoying any choice in operating systems, which thereby draws ongoing third-party developer support. Microsoft will continue milking the cash cow for years. Microsoft isn't going to die, it's just going to stagnate, and it hasn't shown the kind of aptitude for success in new ventures that would make me think it poses a risk to a competitor whose air it cannot choke off at will.

"Google fails often."
This one is actually interesting. Google does have lots of projects that didn't really seem to change the world. (Microsoft Bob, anyone? MSN Music?) Google does have some projects that have changed the world, and unlike some companies I might mention, changed it for the better. Where is AltaVista, once the best and fastest search tool anyplace, and my first stop on the web? And think about Google Maps -- and the API that allows people to plot worldwide wherever underwater hockey is known (click for the map view if your connection speed causes the server to give you the text by default). Think about AdSense, and how a whole range of content vendors are now potentially free from ever having to market to advertisers ever again.

There's always the possibility that Google could release the equivalent of a Zune -- a niche product that functions, but doesn't really engage anyone in numbers meaningful to anyone's bottom line -- but the possibility also exists that Google will release something that is useful and attains by legitimate competition a market segment that will add value to Google's existing assets.

I'll not predict wild success off the bat -- the OS will first have to prove itself functional, for example, then gain acceptance in various market segments, each of which will require different strengths -- but to conclude Google's entry is doomed on the basis of the argument presented is the kind of trite dismissal that was once accepted any time someone confronted Microsoft in any market, but has become dated.

Microsoft can be defeated. Apple demonstrated this, entirely by accident I believe, when it launched its purchase-supporting version of iTunes. Remember when everybody knew that all music in the future was going to be released as WMA files and that Microsoft was going to collect a licensing fee for every track, and maybe even for play count? And yet, long after Microsoft had lined up supporting vendors and content providers, it was crushed by a Johnny-come-lately whom everybody knew didn't have a prayer entering an already-filled market. People are buying DRM-free again, and before that they were buying it with someone else's DRM (Apple's world's largest music store sold only Apple's DRM until the iTunes store went mostly DRM-free, and its top-selling music players -- over 70% of the market -- didn't do WMA at all). Let's face it: Microsoft has lost what it takes. The desktop APIs are less important than they were a decade ago, non-Win32 developers are much more plentiful (and credible as a business proposition) than they were then, Google Gears has been tested in practice for years for offline application support, and the OS market is open to whomever can build an adequately attractive mouse trap.

Long live the competition.

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