Thoughts on the Chrome OS announcement

Google made the announcement on Tuesday: Chrome OS, a "open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks."


I'm sorry, but from a number of perspectives, this move makes no sense to me.

Don't get me wrong—on a number of levels, the operating system needs a little shaking up. Windows7 looks good, granted, Mac OS is a strong contender, and both are clearly popular with the consuming public, but innovation in the operating system seems pretty limited right now, to eye candy graphical window-opening/window-closing effects, different window decorations (title bars and minimize/maximize buttons), and areas along the edges of the screen to store icons. At no point has any of the last three or four OS releases from any of the major vendors—Microsoft, Apple, or the various Linux distros—really introduced anything novel, just infinite variations on a theme. Filesystems are still hierarchical, users still install and manage applications, and so on. In fact, arguably the most interesting development in operating systems has been the iPhone, and most of its innovations center around two things: the two-finger interface, and the complete mental reboot of what user interface looks and acts like.

Seriously, that's the best we can do?

I see a lot of room for improvements in the operating system experience; for starters, let's do away with the "browser" and just call Firefox, IE and Chrome what they're (far too slowly) evolving into: a generic application host. Get that story right—the acquisition of applications onto the device, the updating of those applications when new versions are available, the offline application experience, and so on—and the operating system and the browser will mesh into a seamless whole. But we're not there yet, not by a long ways, and the first competitor to create such an environment will have a huge advantage over its rivals. Arguably Apple got there first with the iPhone and AppStore, and yet the iPhone still needs iTunes running on a computer to make the experience seamless, and iTunes is definitely not what I call a seamless user experience.

(Besides, the iPhone is hamstrung on a number of levels—I would absolutely despise trying to write this blog post on it, for example.)

Despite the clear window of opportunity for an innovative operating system to step in and make some serious waves in the industry, Google producing an OS really doesn't make sense to me, for a number of reasons.

  • Challenging your opponent on your opponent's turf is never a good idea. A maxim of battle says that one should only battle on favorable terrain, yet Google's deliberately choosing to "cross the line", as it were, into territory that is clearly foreign to them. They have no expertise in marketing it, selling it, researching it, or developing it, while their competitors in this—Microsoft, Apple being the principal two—have been doing it for decades. Literally. I realize that Google has a number of smart people working for them, but it seems pretty presumptuous and arrogant to think they can get this story better, particularly in any kind of short term.
  • This is a difficult problem to tackle. Microsoft's known it for decades, Apple is discovering it all over again, and Linuxers have either wallowed in it as a sign of prowess or just accepted the problem as intractable—it's really hard to get an operating system to recognize the billions of different devices out there. Apple solved it by jealously and zealously chasing anyone who ever tried to run Mac OS on non-Apple hardware. Linux consumers found themselves recompiling kernels or in some cases, having to build device drivers themselves. Microsoft just suffered through it. For a new OS, the only path possible in the beginning is to support the 20% of the devices that 80% of the people use, and hope that nobody else tries a device that isn't on that list and blogs to tell about it. Unfortunately, the chosen target market (consumer netbooks) works against them here in a big way. With developers, it's pretty easy to say, "Sorry, guys, you know how it is, give us a few years, or contribute the patch yourself!"; with consumers, if their BuyMart-bargain-bin web cam doesn't work, it's Google's fault and they'll be up in the acne-spackled BuyMart counter boy's face about it. This will not persuade BuyMart to stock the Chrome-installed netbook for much longer.
  • Is this really the company that swore to "do no evil"? Google's announcement is vague on so many levels, it's almost a FUD play, or else they're trying to blatantly cash in on their "geek cred" to convince investors and analysts that they've finally found a new source of revenue to supplement AdWords. (Well, modulo the fact that this new OS will be open-source, which means it's not really a revenue play, but I'm sure they've got that figured out somehow, too.) Seriously, this doesn't make sense: if you're doing an open-source OS, then where is the source? Where is the transparency? Where is my ability to contribute despite my status as a non-Google developer? What part of this project is open-source in any sense of the term?
  • Netbooks? I realize that netbooks are the new hotness to a lot of people, a compromise between a phone/PDA and a laptop, and that the price point of the netbook means that for the first time, consumers can get into computing for under $250 (rivalling the price of game consoles) that addresses their fundamental needs—email, web surfing and maybe an application or two—but the timing here is just too late. Google's announcement says that "netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010". Which means that the major competitors (mostly Windows) will have twelve months to convince netbook consumers that Windows (and Windows7, in particular) is the right choice to run the netbook, and Google will be starting from some distance behind the 8-ball. Chrome needs to be available now if they're going to avoid a long and entrenched battle starting from a position of weakness.
  • It's a distraction from their strength. Abraham Lincoln is famous for saying. "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong", but this represents Google's third or fourth effort into a space that really isn't leveraging their core strength (their ability to scale). Even if the money and resources spent on Chrome (and Android, for that matter) have zero effect on the budgeting and resourcing for Google App Engine and other server plays, the message and story that Google presents to the world is now as disjoint and multifaceted (and therefore harder to grasp) as Microsoft's.
  • Haven't we seen this before? Wasn't it almost a decade ago when another company announced a plan to unify the browser and the desktop? In that case, the world either yawned, rejected it outright ("I don't want to browse my desktop, damnit" was how one friend of mine put it), or sued them over it. Even if Google doesn't run afoul of the DOJ directly, Microsoft is going to love pointing to Chrome OS as clear indication of non-monopoly status the next time DOJ comes calling. If Google does manage somehow to annoy the DOJ antitrust personalities, well... let IBM and Microsoft tell you all about how much fun it is to try to innovate and bring products to market with lawyers looking over your shoulders.
  • Haven't we seen this before? Not too long ago, another vendor tried to go after the "you don't need an operating system" story... except they called it "The Network Is the Computer". All you Java developers, raise your hand. Anybody who doesn't have their hand raised, ask what happened to that vendor from any of the people with their hand in the air. Or ask an Oracle DBA.
  • Haven't we seen this before? Even more recently, another vendor made a play for the netbook+cloud story. All those who've heard of Cloud OS, raise your hand. Anybody who doesn't have your hand raised.... well, I wish I could tell you to go talk to the people with their hand raised, except I don't think anybody does.

This whole idea just feels badly-planned and not well thought-out. Let's see how it executes, so let's meet back here in a year and compare notes, but in the meantime, I'm not hanging up my Java or .NET tools any time soon.