As has been predicted for some time, Google has announced a new operating system project: Google Chrome OS. This is separate from Android, Google's mobile phone OS.
Initially aimed at netbooks, but seemingly intended to mature into a platform for all kinds of computing devices, Chrome OS is a "open source, lightweight operating system". It won't be available until the second half of 2010, but the source code will be made available later this year, so I wouldn't be surprised if we see some kind of usable release about that time too.
At the heart of the OS is Google's Chrome browser. In fact, the operating system appears to be little more than a secure platform for the browser to run upon. Google says the following: "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."
It's no exaggeration to say that Google Chrome OS may well turn out to be epoch-defining. It's the iPod of its time, in that it's not necessarily unique or even ground-breaking, but future historians will probably acknowledge its significance. It's important for all kinds of reasons, but here are just a few:
1. It's open source.
There aren't many details right now but Chrome OS appears to be based on a Linux kernel with a custom windowing system. It's worth remembering that windowing/desktop interfaces matter less when you consider this is simply a browser-based operating system designed to get you online and push you towards online applications.
Make no mistake: Chrome OS is attempting to evolve the operating system and get away from metaphors created in the 1970s at Xerox PARC, as I've discussed several times before(How Open Source Can Beat the Status Quo, The Future Is BIOS and Browsers). The browser really is the future.
2. Google is taking the battle into Microsoft's territory.
Google is producing a product that directly competes with Windows. To add insult to injury, it's open source -- the one thing that Microsoft really hates.
You have to give Google points for style here.
Commentators might be wondering why Google isn't licensing existing Microsoft technologies, but that would miss the point entirely. By using open source, Google is positioning itself diametrically opposite Microsoft. In some ways, Google had no choice but to embrace open source.
But Chrome OS marks a serious escalation of the war between the two companies, especially considering that Google is cleverly targeting the two traditional weaknesses in Microsoft products: security and speed. We can soon expect a casual announcement from Steve Ballmer, made "in passing" to a journalist, that attempts to pop Google's bubble. However, I suspect there are a lot of sweaty-palmed people at Microsoft right now. The laser printer may well be spewing resumes.
Microsoft really is dead in the water. It might be churning a profit right now, but it's business model and products have reached the natural end of their life and Microsoft just hasn't evolved or changed to keep up. It's a 20th century company, doing 20th century stuff. The rest of the world is moving on.
The key issue for Microsoft is this: Google has a lot of trust out there in the real world. This is the crucial strength that can really land a sucker punch on Microsoft. The likes of mom and pop, who don't even know what Windows is (much to Microsoft's glee), will trust Google enough to blindly switch to the new OS. (Especially if, on a technical level, Chrome OS uses something like Wubi to make installation ultra-easy and safe.)
If you're a geek who helps out non-techie people, you should get to know about Google Chrome OS because you'll almost certainly be getting questions about it soon.
3. Google is going to own your desktop experience.
Google already intends to own your mobile phone, and it's owned your Internet searches since about 2000. For many of us, it's owned our email since about 2004 too.
Many people assume that Google is producing all this wonderful software out of the goodness of its heart, or simply to give Microsoft a hard time. While I suspect both these reasons are true to an extent (I believe Google is actually quite a philanthropic organisation), many people forget Google's ruthless purpose in life: It wants to own every shred of data you generate.
To do this, it is giving you the tools to produce that data: email, office applications, and now an entire operating system. Google doesn't want to literally "own" your data of course; Google's clever enough to realise nobody owns anything online, especially data. It just wants to be the exclusive agent when it comes to cataloguing and sorting your data.
There will undoubtedly be privacy concerns about the new OS. The EULA will probably attempt to give Google unfettered access to your entire online life. There will almost certainly be a scandal about it, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. If Microsoft is looking for an attack point, this is probably its best opportunity, although Microsoft will also need to ensure it is clean as a whistle in this regard too. And I doubt it can. When it comes to privacy, Google and Microsoft will probably take an 'honor amongst thieves' approach, and neither will mention it much.
4. Chrome OS is just another sign that open source is going for an all-out attack on the netbook arena.
Google Chrome OS, Intel Moblin v2, Ubuntu Netbook Remix, and various other renditions of Linux that have been found on netbooks. It's hard to name another area of computing where there's such a concentration of innovation and sheer effort. Microsoft might have won the early battle by allowing WinXP to be installed on netbooks, but there's precious little evidence that it's won the war. The battle really hasn't yet begun.
It's worth mentioning that Chrome runs on ARM chips -- widely seen as the future of netbooks, due to their stunningly low-power requirements -- as well as traditional x86 processors. Microsoft has always been exclusively x86 with its desktop OS. Again, the world is moving on, but Microsoft is staying still.
In the next year or two you might expect to see yet another antitrust allegation made against Microsoft, which is extending its Windows 7 monopoly onto netbooks. This undoubtedly gives the company an uncompetetitve advantage. Google may well be the company that takes them on. In fact, I'll bet plans are being drawn-up in a lawyer's office right now.
Cynics and conspiracy theorists might even suggest that Chrome OS is partially a tool to drag Microsoft back into the courtroom in an attempt to do some serious damage.
Keir Thomas is the author of several books on Ubuntu, including the free-of-charge Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.