The Future of Linux is Google

I used to think Ubuntu was destined to lead Linux into the mainstream, but now it's looking much more like Google--not Canonical--will be the first Linux vendor to truly challenge Microsoft.

Google's migration into the operating system business has been so gradual that many industry watchers have shrugged it off. When the company announced its Android OS for phones, it looked interesting. There was nothing new about the idea of using Linux on a handset, and (apart from Google's involvement) little reason to expect it would carve out substantial market share in the competitive smartphone arena. But, with about 20 distinct Android handsets in the hands of more than three million users worldwide--and about 30 more devices expected to roll out in 2010--Google's mobile OS is now looking like a force to be reckoned with.

What's most striking about Google's apparent success in the OS market is that it has chosen not to fight Microsoft where it is strongest (on the desktop), but where it is waning. While Windows Mobile 6.5 is a competent mobile OS, Microsoft has failed to generate genuine excitement for users who've been dazzled by the far more compelling iPhone OS. Simultaneously, Microsoft has not managed to convert its dominance in the data center into a serious challenge to RIM's BlackBerry devices among business users.

Carolina Milanesi, Gartner research director for mobile devices, reports that Windows Mobile slipped to 7.9 percent in the third quarter of 2009. World leader Symbian also slid, from 49.7 percent to 44.6 percent. Meanwhile, BlackBerry and iPhone have grown to 20.8 percent and 17.1 percent, respectively. Amid all this shuffling, Google Android has carved out a 3.5 percent share for itself in the mobile marketplace. Not bad for a newcomer.

The desktop market, over which Microsoft utterly dominates with a market share exceeding 92 percent according to the latest Net Applications stats, is another story entirely. In this arena, all desktop Linux distributions combined comprise less than one percent of the total market--a statistic that hasn't budged in years despite great strides in both the overall quality of Linux distributions and support from major PC vendors.

Google appears to have effectively executed its entry into the OS business by targeting the rapidly expanding mobile sphere, and it's now starting to reap rewards for its efforts. Android isn't just building a user base, it's generating real buzz among consumers. This excitement doesn't appear likely to let up anytime soon, either. With big-name manufacturers rolling out handsets across all major carriers in a steadily flowing stream of hot product announcements, Android's momentum will almost certainly continue to build.

Here Comes Chrome OS

Now Google is eyeing somewhat larger devices with Chrome OS, an open-source operating system for x86 and ARM-based netbooks that will be available for free and may actually surface in beta as soon as this week. While it would be foolhardy to make any bold predictions about this still-unseen OS, conditions look good for Google. Microsoft has regained some clout with netbook buyers by making Windows 7 netbook-worthy, but has also managed to disrupt its own success by placing needless restrictions on which versions of Win 7 will run on certain devices.

Microsoft has reason to be glib. After all, it handily trounced Linux on the netbook platform--even after Asus, Dell, and Acer sold large numbers of Linux-based systems, creating what may have been the largest-ever influx of new users to Linux. Now Microsoft is sitting squarely on top of the netbook market and has begun dictating terms its usual manner. But the battle is not yet won, and there remains a solid opportunity for open source software on netbooks.

Microsoft's main attraction--on netbooks, laptops, or desktops--is its familiarity. Both as a name and as an interface, Windows is a comfortable standard for users. Ubuntu offers a look and feel familiar enough for any mildly savvy user to get comfortable with, but not familiar enough outcompete Windows with mainstream users. Chrome OS, which will use a new windowing environment with the Chrome browser as its main interface, won't compete with Windows on familiarity. Instead, it will focus on two things Windows still lags in that are critical to success on small-form devices: simplicity and cloud connectivity. Once again, Google is attacking Microsoft at its weak points.

In bringing Chrome OS to market, Google has taken on some powerful partners. Intel, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, Acer, Qualcomm, Freescale, and Adobe are all on board. This is about as close as you can get to a netbook-building dream team. As the hardware makers in this group vie to differentiate their Chrome OS devices, consumers are bound to get a wealth of interesting options. The strong will survive, the weak will go back to the drawing board, and Chrome will likely evolve--just as Android has--into a compelling platform all its own.

Living In the Cloud

Chrome OS will be a cloud-based environment, depending on access to online services. Most notably Chrome OS will support Google's own services, though the early announcements have included a call for broad development of third-party Web-based apps for Chrome OS devices.

Android devices have already shown the power of this model. I personally own a Motorola Droid handset, and use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and other related services for most of my work. In fact, switching to Android has quickly strengthened my dependence on Google services, as it has allowed me to do more work from wherever I happen to be standing. Like most Android users I know, I'm increasingly open to the idea of a larger device that offers the same seamless support for cloud computing and lets me get more done.

Of course, living in the cloud does come with drawbacks. The biggest problem, of course, is what to do when the cloud is down. Over the past year, we've seen numerous outages for Gmail, and each one has been greeted by an uproar from users whose lives and work are disrupted by the service failures. Fortunately for users, these outages have consistently been brief, and have not tended to disrupt access via IMAP. And for those who work offline through Google Gears, access to existing e-mail, documents, and calendar items remains constant even when the servers go down.

Community Action

Whether a Chrome OS beta rolls out this week, next week, next month, or next year, its success will depend heavily on the vast community of sophisticated users and developers who have helped to create such a staggering array of Linux distributions from the kernel up over the last 18 years. Google's name and industry clout can only take a new OS so far.

Fortunately for Google, the company has spent years cultivating relationships throughout the open source community. So it should quickly find a large base of experienced testers willing to download this beta the instant it hits the Web.

It's encouraging to bear in mind that, for most Linux users, the expectation from beta software is generally tempered by a reasonable expectation of finding--and more importantly, reporting--bugs. This deeply engrained practice within the Linux community sets the stage for a productive beta test for Google, while ensuring that those most likely to run the beta are unlikely to be deterred by a normal round of bug fixes before launch.

Plenty of Other Fish

It may be tempting to think that Chrome OS could spell an end to other, less widely supported distributions of Linux, but I think such concerns are ill founded. The Linux world is based on nothing so much as a deep desire for diversity and choice in computing. It's no accident that there are hundreds of distributions available, and the introduction of a successful new leader will only serve to expand opportunities for other distributions. This is just the way things work with open source.

For the last several years, Ubuntu has managed to steal most of the limelight from other consumer distros, while workhorses like Red Hat and SUSE have continued trucking along in the business market. But for the Linux enthusiast, any new distro is good news and an opportunity to play, learn, and explore.

The advantage of having a major name in the game is that it attracts more users and developers to the platform. Google is no exception. Even a Microsoft Linux (as long as it complied with the GPL) would be good for the open source community. Companies like these bring big partnerships to the table, as Google has already managed to do for Chrome OS. And in return, according to the terms of the GPL, these companies must make a significant portion of their own code available to the open source community. In this scenario, everyone wins.

Waiting On Google

For now, of course, there is no Chrome OS to speak of. Google has yet to offer so much as a preview of the OS, and stories of prerelease downloads have proven bogus. Until we see an actual announcement from Google, almost everything we can say about this OS is speculation based on scant information.

What is certain, however, is that when the beta does launch, it will put a serious toll on Google's servers.

Robert Strohmeyer is a senior editor at PC World, and has been an open source advocate for 15 years. He tweets as @rstrohmeyer.

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