The Future of Linux is Google
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.
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.