Is it 1994 again? Google's announcement of Google Chrome OS, a stripped-down, open-source operating system optimized for inexpensive netbooks, reminds those of us with medium-length memories of the epic Netscape/Microsoft battle of the mid-1990s, and it raises questions about Google and Apple competing in the future. Chrome OS will reportedly become available in the second half of 2010 and is being announced now because Google is starting to have discussions with partners and will soon be working with the open source community.
Netscape and Microsoft -- Microsoft's entry into Internet applications and businesses started in 1995 in response to Netscape's success in creating a widely used Web browser (Netscape Navigator) and a burgeoning ecosystem around it. At the time, it seemed possible that Netscape could grow large and sophisticated enough to extend the browser into a full operating system, challenging both the nascent Windows 95 and well-established Macintosh System 7.5. (We even joked in a 1996 April Fools issue about Swedish students developing a Netscape plug-in that provided a full Unix implementation within the Netscape Navigator browser window (see "WebCommando Moves In," 1996-04-01). Like many of our April Fools articles, this has now come true, in the form of JPC, an x86 emulator written in Java.)
Numerous smart people at the time said that if Netscape could just add print drivers and a way to boot into the browser, a thin OS could meet the needs of a lot of people. We've often contended - and some research shows - that most people use a computer largely for email, Web browsing, and video streaming.
In retrospect, there were several problems. Netscape had hardly any revenue and massive losses on the books. The company wasn't able to sustain its efforts against Microsoft's might - the details of which turned into many lawsuits, appeals, and settlements - and eventually became a footnote in history.
More important, the local area network and Internet infrastructure weren't sufficiently complete in the late 1990s for a netbook-like device running a thin OS to compete with even a modestly configured computer of the time. Dial-up connections didn't provide sufficient bandwidth, Web applications were slow and clumsy, Wi-Fi didn't yet exist, and people didn't yet have the experience of running applications via a Web browser.
Fast Forward to Google Today -- Although Netscape is no more, the world has changed. High-speed Internet access is commonplace in the United States and even more so in other countries. Indoor Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi hotspots, and 3G cell data service are widespread, if not quite ubiquitous, eliminating the need for any cables to connect. And Web applications are an everyday experience for a vast number of people. But the main thing that's changed is the meteoric rise of Google.
Google doesn't suffer the financial or market disadvantages that Netscape did. The company has vast revenue and huge net earnings. It has dominated the paid search market, but also has significant entries in email hosting, Web applications, and a host of smaller businesses. It even developed its own Web browser, Chrome, to free it from reliance on browsers from companies that might not be friendly to Google forever. Helpfully, Google's Web applications are based on open standards and don't require Chrome at all, the exact opposite of Microsoft's efforts long ago to push the proprietary ActiveX in Internet Explorer for Web-based applications.
Google also has the advantage of today's modern Linux "platform," a combination of free software, open-source software, and variously licensed other software on top of a robust kernel. The company also already has mobile- and desktop-tuned versions of its various Web applications, like Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar. (Reports that say Google is building its operating system from scratch are overblown; the company has an enormous foundation to build on.)
What about Microsoft? In 2008, netbook sales passed 10 million units. But what are those netbooks also running? Mostly Windows. Microsoft's role in the netbook explosion has been continuing to sell Windows XP. In its latest (and almost certainly last) version, Service Pack 3, Windows XP works reasonably well, although it's still a security nightmare.
(Based on the success of netbooks, Windows 7 will have some kind of netbook edition, although details on pricing and issues like the maximum screen size to be eligible to run the netbook edition - yes, Microsoft is that picky - are apparently still being resolved.)
While some netbooks are sold with Linux, no company offers a Linux experience that's as good as Windows XP, if you exclude the hassle of keeping Windows XP secure and functioning. Whatever your opinion of Windows, it is a complete desktop operating system, and most of the Linux graphical interfaces aren't suitable for a mass audience.
That's where Google sees an opening. A $300 netbook running Windows XP still needs anti-virus, firewall, anti-spyware, and other software to keep it secure. All that background software slows down an already deliberately low-powered netbook, and generally involves yearly subscription costs to keep it all up to date.
With Chrome OS, Google can provide a Linux-based alternative to Windows XP on netbooks, focusing on making the underlying security architecture of the operating system robust enough to eliminate the problems with viruses and other malware. And, undoubtedly, much of the win comes from having the majority of the user experience mediated through the Web - the interface will be essentially a Web browser. In the process, Google will crib from all the lessons learned from other operating systems, and its own work as part of the Open Handset Alliance on Android, the mobile OS it was instrumental in launching.
Google said that Android won't be affected by Chrome OS. Android is tailored for devices that have small screens, a variety of input mechanisms, extreme battery requirements, and processors that are even lower-powered than those in netbooks. It's possible that Android and Chrome OS could at some point converge into a single platform, but we can see the advantages of developing a netbook operating system separately from a mobile one.
If Chrome OS is successful, a more likely direction would be toward larger-screen laptops and desktops. After all, the most common computer activities - Web browsing, email, word processing, spreadsheets, simple databases, managing photos, streaming video - can all be done in a Web application these days.
Google versus Apple -- Enough about Google and Microsoft - how might Chrome OS impact Apple? Apple has been talking about the netbook space for a few months, and rumors have been flying that the company may produce a tablet Mac or a large-screen iPod touch to compete with the tremendously limited netbooks currently for sale.
With Chrome OS, Google and Apple may finally end up competing head-to-head, though in an unusual way. Apple ties OS X to Macintosh and iPhone hardware, which helps somewhat with security and a lot with usability. But the major change that Apple made with the iPhone was to allow third-party applications to be sold for the iPhone solely through the App Store. This has created a burgeoning marketplace, and despite Apple's awkward rejection policies, one that for the most part works fairly well.
The success of the App Store is why we suspect that it's more likely Apple's netbook-killer will be in the iPod touch line rather than the MacBook line. Although Mac OS X and the Macintosh won't be going away any time soon, it seems as though Apple is focusing more attention on the more-bounded iPhone OS, where the company can earn money on hardware and by taking a cut of all software sales and in-application revenue.
In contrast, Google is making Chrome OS both open source and free to netbook makers. Netbook makers without any relationship with Google could even take the open-source code and mix up custom versions. Google will make its money through display advertising and hosted services, and could cut an ad-split deal with netbook makers as an incentive. Google has such deals with Apple, Mozilla, and others for the ad views on browser search results already. It's thus in Google's interest to distribute Chrome OS as widely as possible.
The final irony? When Apple initially suggested that Web apps were the future for the iPhone, Mac developers revolted, because they were coming from the desktop application mindset, where you sell and support standalone software, and because Apple's own apps enjoyed features that Web apps couldn't provide. When Google suggests that Web apps are the future for netbooks, Web developers are rejoicing, because they understand the Web app mindset already and can look forward to being first-class citizens alongside Google.