Google's Chrome OS: The Web Is the Computer

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, July 9, 2009

Google announced a new Web-centric, laptop operating system Tuesday night and called it "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 the United States v. Microsoft antitrust case. In that role, he wrote a "Findings of Fact" document analyzing the Redmond, Wash., company's dominance of personal computing and evaluating possible competitive threats.

Jackson suggested one possibility in particular: applications that could run inside a Web browser, thus making browsers into a software platform he termed "middleware."

A federal appeals court took Jackson off the Microsoft case in 2001, citing an appearance of bias, 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 Calendar, 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., firm hopes to release it to developers by the end of this year, then see it ship on 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 will integrate the browser with the operating system -- a tactic 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 run just as well in other browsers on other operating systems, such as Windows or Mac OS X, 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 in a browser.

So Chrome OS users will enjoy a wealth of programs, and many presumably will be 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.

Even with Google's vast user base as a potential audience, this strategy may not work. First, Chrome OS meets the book definition of "vaporware," software announced far before its purported shipping date. 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 United States so far, T-Mobile's G1.

Software developers, in turn, could reject Google's Web-only invitation in favor of writing traditional programs that are not 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 don't need to wait for Google to get a simple, secure, open-source, Web-centric operating system. The versions of Linux shipping on many netbooks already match most of this description. Want to turn a Linux netbook into a Chrome look-alike? Set its Firefox browser to run on startup in full-screen mode, then lock out access to every other application on the netbook.

Chrome may make it easier for people to switch to an entirely Web-based computing existence -- for one thing, the Google brand name ought to 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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