You’re probably blind if you have not seen the news that Google is launching Google Chrome OS next year. The product will be based on Linux (what else?) and will focus on speed, simplicity and security. Basically, Google will boot on Linux and launch its Chrome web browser.
Besides the fact that if any other company was doing this and call it an Operating System everybody would laugh, let’s look at a few things.
- What’s the value proposition from Google?
- What are their advantages for success?
- Who are they targeting?
- Can they “kill” Windows and Mac OS?
- What is the likely outcome?
Fundamentally, Google says that it can get users to the web faster and use less resources (understand cheaper computers) in the process. From there, “applications” are just regular web sites that you and us already use today (GMail, Google Docs, and non-Google sites). The one-liner would be “everything in the cloud”.
Despite all the buzz, this is not really a new value proposition: most Linux-based Netbooks already do that. They require less memory, boot faster than Windows and use less memory and storage. You can also run Chrome or Firefox on them. Even Windows CE in a Netbook and a good web browser could achieve that goal.
Obviously, Google wants to attract people to the Cloud, where it is a dominant player. Just like a Google-phone does that well, the company thinks that a “Google computer” would also achieve that end.
Thanks to search, Google has deep pockets and can use them to fund projects that might or might not make money. The company also has a talent to attract bright people, but bright people don’t always make the best product apparently, Google had to buy YouTube because its brand was so much better than Google Video. The product itself was arguably much better too.
However, Google itself is a huge brand, a brand that could instill customers confidence in an “OS” that’s not Windows or Mac OS. That is certainly going to be a huge booster when compared to the average Linux.
Which customers is Google targeting?
In the long-term, “everybody” obviously, but the first users will be split in three categories: The geeky cloud freak, the users who “just do web stuff” and those who don’t even know what’s in the computer. In the past, the “cloud freak” was the only category who would enjoy the value proposition outlined above. Most people still expect a “normal” computer on which they can install applications that they are familiar with, hence the demand for Windows XP and Windows 7 on Netbooks.
Can Google Kill Windows and Mac OS?
Not in the next decade. At the very least, think about all the peripherals that you connect to your computers: they require drivers, and drivers are primarily written for Windows, then Mac OS. Everybody has a printer and many have exotic USB gadgets. And that’s not it. While we enjoy web apps because they are “good enough” for a lot of things, the browser is pretty limited when it comes to user interface design and sometimes, we simply run local applications as well like video players, video editing software and other things like that. Imagine the reaction of a prospect customer when he/she hears: ‘you can’t install a DirectX game, ever”… Also what about saving files locally?
Until a new OS can fulfill all these needs, it’s unlikely that current OS will go extinct. Right now, it doesn’t look like Google wants to take that path.
It is true that a massive Google Chrome OS customer adoption would be hurtful to Microsoft, but it’s like saying “if Motorola comes out with an iPhone Killer, Apple is in trouble”. At this point, Microsoft is annoyed by the hype, but it is raking cash into its coffers while Google launches another free app, funded by the Search Advertising money.
Right now, Google can’t and does not want to compete in the “real OS” space (doing it later is not excluded). It’s too much work, it takes too much time and the competition is too entrenched. In tech, people often say that the “new stuff will kill the old stuff”, but often, we end up with the old stuff AND the new stuff. This appears to be no different.
What is the likely outcome?
Ironically, the first victims of Google Chrome OS are the various Linux distributions used in Netbooks today. Google’s product could be a drop-in replacement and it is clear that customers who are OK with a Linux Netbook today would probably like (or don’t care, like non-silicon-valley elderly people) about a Google Linux laptop tomorrow. All Google needs to do to beat any Netbook Linux out there is to put its name, create shiny icons (not sure that they know how to do this) and promote Google Chrome OS.
The single largest issue with this plan is customer adoption. Linux-based Netbook are basically rejected by end users and there’s nothing in Google’s value proposition that fixes this other than “it’s cool” and “it’s Google”. As we suggested above, Google’s branding will make a Google Chrome OS Netbook more fashionable than any Linux Netbooks before it. But there’s a limit as to what branding can do versus added-value.
If the product is really cool and if the devices are really cheap, it could spark a new category of special purpose “web only” devices. In time, that could very well be true, and it would benefit Google, while not really hurt windows or Mac OS. This is much more likely than “Google OS taking over the PC world”.
Finally, the ultimate weapon for Google could be to subsidize computer makers with marketing dollars or free advertising. This is a common practice in the PC world and we bet that many OEMs would sign on just based on the Google name.
If you ask people today what a “better computer” should be, they might say something like “A windows computer that boots in 10 seconds, on a 12″ laptop that has 24hrs of battery life” before they say “A web-only computer”. It’s not about whether or not they are right or wrong, but it’s about what they want to pay for.
Beyond the hype of titles like “Google launches a nuke on Microsoft” (that would be a very delayed nuke) and talks of a “Frontal Assault”, the reality is that Google boots on Linux and launches its web browser from there. It doesn’t sound so exciting now, huh? But as unexciting as the facts can be, we will have to see how many customers Google can effectively turn with their cool and value proposition. Nobody has the answer to this, and speculating on what the computer landscape will be a couple of decades from now is doomed. After all, 10 years ago Yahoo was the internet dominant player and cloud storage went bust along with the dot com bubble.