Will Linux Shine as Google Chrome OS?

Google has announced their very own Linux based operating system, but is anyone surprised? What will it mean for other Linux distributions who are vying for a piece of the pie?

Google has certainly come a long way since their humble beginnings as a two-man operation out of a home garage. At the time they were the new kid on the block, just a search engine known by almost no-one. Then, due to the high quality of their product, they took the market by storm. Today, Google is a household name and it’s even a verb.

The company makes money through advertising. All of their products, including their search engine are all a vehicle for their advertising business strategy. As such, their success depends on the continued use of their products. This is a core focus of Google’s – keep people using their products and services. As technology moves, so has Google. They have even innovated many new products and entered several new markets, forcing their competitors to follow suit.

Google has created an exceptional free email service which just lost its “Beta” tag. Then there’s Google Apps, a free service which allows anyone to use an on-line office program to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations and more. Then they rocked the world with Google Maps (whatever did we used to do without it?) and soon there will be Google Voice and Google Wave (which promises to revolutionize the way we communicate).

Google has been busy building up a complete set of on-line applications which are attractive not only to individuals, but also to corporations with plug-ins for Exchange, Lotus Notes and even Blackberries. It all appears to be working.

Now, the remaining piece of the puzzle is, how to make sure the world keeps using them? Google has attacked the mobile market by releasing Android, a mostly open source environment for mobile devices (naturally designed to work with Google services) which has become quite popular. Last year they even launched their own web browser, which no doubt allows Google to harvest everything you do on the net and use that to market products back at you. Now, as an extension of that browser, comes an operating system of the same name, Google Chrome OS.

It is clear that Google has high plans for this new product, writing: “The operating systems that browsers run on were designed in an era where there was no web. So today, we’re announcing a new project that’s a natural extension of Google Chrome — the Google Chrome Operating System. It’s our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be.” Wow, that’s a pretty bold statement. Google is planning to create a brand new operating system that re-defines what an operating system is, and how we use it.

Sounds exciting, so what is Chrome OS? According to the announcement it is a lightweight, Linux-based operating system designed for netbooks and “full-size desktop systems”. We know that it will be based upon the Chrome browser and come with a new, unique interface. “Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS. We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web,” they write.

Is anyone really that surprised? It was bound to happen, sooner or later. It’s simply a natural progression in the company’s direction. What does this move mean for the market as we know it, though? Or more importantly, how will it affect free software and the adoption of commercial Linux distributions such as Ubuntu?

There has been much speculation about what it will mean long term, with many welcoming the new challenger and others seeing it as a threat. Seriously though, there’s enough market there for everyone and the more that is taken away from Microsoft, the better. Linux only has a tiny, tiny fraction of the market for desktop computing today and there’s plenty to go around. Chrome OS will fill a certain market niche, hopefully it will be able to make a reasonably sized dent. If Google could capture a hefty slice, what a game changer that would be!

Still, many in the IT industry are complaining that Google’s new operating system will simply “fragment the Linux desktop further”. The very use of the word “fragment” makes it all sound so negative, but is it really? People keep saying that and yet Linux continues to become more and more popular. Did Linux really need Ubuntu when Canonical could have just improved Debian?

Choice is good. Yes, Chrome OS might further fragment “Linux” but probably not in the way most people assume. Think of Chrome OS as an appliance. It’s not going to be your every day running operating system where you sit down and do some video editing, for example. It’s a special, customized operating system specifically designed to live on the net and run everything Google. Sure, it might move over to the desktop at some point but for now at least, it’s focus is on lightweight machines and on-line applications. At least that’s what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is hoping, who appears un-phased by Google’s plans. Then again, you’d expect that.

So while it might “steal” some market share from Linux, it’s mostly going to take it from Microsoft. Commercially, Ubuntu on the desktop has so far been less than a stellar success. Dell has been selling Ubuntu systems for a few years now, but it hasn’t had the huge uptake that many in the free software world were anticipating. Also, most vendors who were originally shipping Linux on their netbooks have now switched primarily to Windows. With Microsoft having dodged a bullet with Vista and Windows 7 on the horizon, the more Linux options that exist for vendors the better.

Might this slow down Ubuntu’s bid for world domination? Possibly. It might negatively impact the adoption of many other commercial Linux distributions too, but so what? Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, is out to make money from their operating system. So is Google, just in a different way. That’s the way of the market place and if they can’t compete then that’s just too bad. Plus it’s not all doom and gloom. Many people won’t want to run Google.

If there’s one thing that the multitude of Linux distributions shows, it’s that not everyone wants the same thing. Not everyone wants Windows. Not everyone wants an Android phone and not everyone will want Chrome OS. Some will (for some reason) stick with Windows, others will branch out and take on another Linux offering. This is certainly a turning point in computing history, one that shouldn’t be underrated.

So actually, the release of Chrome OS might indeed help Ubuntu, by showing the world that there are other options. Of course, it will be down to Canonical to take advantage of that fact and capitalise on it, but the opportunity exists. Perhaps people might even start to look at what’s running Google OS, Linux, and try out another mainstream distribution on their own machine. If there is going to be change, people first need to hear about it or else nothing happens.

Google, unlike Ubuntu, is a household name. It has the brand, it has the reputation, it has the cash and it has the motivation to release a super competitive operating system for any market. Google could in fact, be the very vehicle needed to explode open source onto the scene for every day users. If they can, then everyone in the Linux world benefits.

And that’s the main point, which everyone seems to ignore. Google using Linux is a good thing. Everyone in the Linux community will benefit because Google will finally be distributing a kernel which, for any improvements they make, they will have to release the code for everyone else too. It’s at a time like this you are thankful Linux uses the GPL and not a BSD license!

Some Linux supporters have outright rejected Google’s project saying it’s not needed because “we’ve got Ubuntu.” Seriously, Ubuntu is far too fragmented itself. They have their hands in far too many pots and have yet to make a dent on the market. The Netbook Remix edition, while an interesting interface for netbooks, is still horribly clunky.

Why might Chrome OS succeed where others haven’t? Because Google owns the Internet and that’s where the future is. In their announcement, Google makes it clear that Chrome OS is designed to allow developers to run web based applications via any operating system. It’s a shift. Microsoft owned the days of thick clients running locally installed programs. Google owns tomorrow, the days of Internet based applications. Microsoft needs users to continue using Windows. They need thick clients and locally installed programs and if all that disappears then so do their profits. Of course, all that is highly unlikely to disappear. People will still need to use applications locally, at least for now, as web based applications are very limited in what they can do. Then again, there’s nothing to say that Chrome OS will not be extended to run all sorts of local applications too.

Of course, there’s the other side of the coin. Do you trust Google? Google probably knows more about you than the Government does. They can track every email you ever sent, every comment you’ve ever made and they probably know intimate details like where you were born and when, your mother’s maiden name and even your bank account details. For those worried about the new OS encroaching further on their privacy it’s possibly a fair call. If that’s the case, then don’t use it. Or do, remembering that it is open source and that “sanitized versions” are bound to find their way onto the net. The truth is that we don’t yet know what Google will include in the operating system, but because it’s open source you can bet your bottom dollar people will be looking.

Microsoft maintains its stranglehold on the market partly because every new machine sold comes with Windows. When Linux based netbooks broke onto the scene, Microsoft smothered them by extending the life of XP to compete. What Linux needs is a big player to back it up and make available an attractive, stable and trusted platform for end users. Google could be the very one to make that happen.

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