Google shook up the tech world this week by announcing it's developing a PC operating system based on its Chrome Web browser. The Chrome OS will hit the market in 2010—at first it will be available only on low-power netbook machines, but eventually, Google says, you'll see Chrome on all kinds of laptops and desktops.
The operating-system market could certainly use more competition, and—as we've seen with the Web browser war—when big tech companies go head to head, great new features often trickle down to us users. But I'm skeptical about Google's project. More than skeptical, actually: I think the Google OS is doomed. Here are five reasons why:
Linux is hard to love. Chrome OS will be based on Linux, the open-source operating system that many techies have long held up as the white knight that will one day slay Microsoft. Scores of engineers and eager entrepreneurs have tried to turn Linux into an operating system that appeals not just to server ninjas but to regular people. They've had limited success. Even the advent of Ubuntu, a user-friendly flavor of Linux that comes pre-installed on a variety of brand-name computers, didn't move the mark; Linux still holds an infinitesimal share of the operating-system market, and not even its biggest boosters expect that to change anytime soon.
Why can't Linux catch on? A dearth of software and hardware. Many of the programs and peripherals that people want to use are either incompatible with the OS or require so much work to rejigger that it's not worth the trouble.
To take the most obvious examples: Linux can't run Outlook, Word, Excel, iTunes, Photoshop, or any number of proprietary apps that businesses all over the world depend on. Want to sync your iPod Touch with Ubuntu? First, uninstall "libgpod," then install "ipod-convenience" and either "amarok" or "gtkpod." After that, mount your device to get the iTunes database hash, and then, after jailbreaking your iPod Touch (thus voiding the warranty), connect it to your PC wirelessly. Easy, huh?
Sure, it's possible that Google's imprimatur will prompt third-party companies to create more software and hardware that works with Linux. But this will be a long struggle, and Google will have to work hard to convince others to play along. Some firms—notably Apple and Microsoft—might be especially resistant to change. Don't expect to see a Chrome OS version of Excel anytime soon.
We aren't ready to run everything on the Web. Google would contend that software and hardware incompatibilities won't limit Chrome OS. In the very near future, the argument goes, we'll run all of our programs in the browser. Since Google's OS will be optimized to work seamlessly with the Web, then Chrome is the way of the future.
This notion makes explicit what many observers—including my colleague Chris Wilson—have pointed out before: The Web is already a kind of operating system. I've praised this vision of a stripped-down, Webby OS in the past; just recently, I rejoiced over the news that Android, Google's open-source cell phone OS, is making the leap to netbook PCs.
But it's important to remember the limits of these machines. Many people buy netbooks as second computers—devices for surfing the Web while watching TV or shooting off e-mails on a long cab ride but not for the kind of deep, sustained interaction that most of us would call work. As Wilson points out, most Web apps just aren't good enough right now to replace the desktop programs we rely on. I'll create a Google Doc when I want to share info with friends or colleagues, but I'm writing this story in Word. When I polled my colleagues at Slate, most said they work the same way. It's no wonder Google Docs—despite being free—is an order of magnitude less popular than Word.
Web apps will keep getting better, of course, and perhaps soon we'll run the vast majority of our programs online. But here's the crucial sticking point for Chrome: Because it's based on a Web browser, every app developed for Chrome will also run perfectly on Windows or the Mac. By definition, then, Microsoft and Apple machines will always be able to do more than Chrome machines—they'll be able to run Web apps and the processor-intensive desktop programs that we'll still need in our glorious Webby future: movie-editing software and CAD programs, for instance.