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.
Microsoft is a formidable opponent. To appreciate how thoroughly Microsoft dominates the operating-system business, consider that for the last two years, the firm has been selling a product, Windows Vista, that inspired nearly universal derision—an OS that some customers were willing to pay to downgrade from, one whose reputation is so tarnished that Microsoft had to trick people into using it. And you know what? It still sold like gangbusters.
According to the analytics firm Net Applications, Vista gained 24 percent of the OS market over the last couple of years—faster growth than any of its rivals. Windows' total market share—counting all versions—is now at just under 88 percent. This, to be sure, is lower than it has been in the past; just before Vista's release, Windows commanded 93 percent of the market. But that's like pointing out that Tiger Woods didn't win many tournaments when he missed half a season to get knee surgery. Microsoft, long hobbled by Vista, will soon emerge from physical therapy—in October, it will launch Windows 7, a terrific OS that is certain to make up for lost ground.
Computers running the Chrome OS will hit the market many months later. At that point, with Vista's hassles a thing of the past, what will be Google's selling point? Because the search company plans to give Chrome away for free, the stripped-down machines that come with the OS pre-loaded may be cheaper than comparable Windows computers. But the difference will be slight—probably about $50 at the most. That would be a small price to pay for all the extra functionality you'll get from the Windows computer.
Google fails often. It's hard to discount Google; engineers there have a history of shaking up entrenched industries with truly revolutionary software. Look at Gmail, Google Maps, and, obviously, the Google search engine. At the same time, the company often seems to launch products for no clear reason other than because other people are doing it—and these efforts flail. Knol, Google's take on Wikipedia, is useless. So was Lively, Google's now-shuttered virtual world. And to say that Orkut, its social network, is very popular in Brazil and India is to damn it with faint praise.
Even when Google does make very good products, it has had trouble leveraging its search-engine dominance into other ventures. Google Video was great—but the company had to buy YouTube to get anywhere in the online-video market. Google Checkout is wonderful, but its presence hasn't hurt PayPal. Chrome is just about the best browser you can download, and it's the only product that Google has ever advertised on TV. Fewer than 2 percent of Web surfers use it.
The Chrome OS makes no business sense. It's no surprise that Google plans to give away its new OS for free; Google gives away nearly everything for free. That's because it makes pornographic amounts of money from a single product, Web ads, and can afford to dally in any other business venture it chooses, whether or not those efforts hold out any promise of profits. (See YouTube.)
Sometimes there's a logic to this. It made sense for Google to create its own mobile phone OS, for instance, because there were few great operating systems that would deliver the Web to phones—and Google's future depends on the Internet being available everywhere, all the time. Thus you can think of Google's investment in Android as a kind of loss leader—it gives away the OS for free in the hope that billions of people around the world will one day use Android-like phones to click on ads at the gym.
But the Chrome project is unencumbered by any such rationale. If 20 percent of the world's computer users switched from Windows to Chrome, would that help Google's bottom line? Sure, all those people would now be using Gmail and Google Docs—but they could have been doing that in Windows, too! An MBA might describe the Chrome OS as a wasteful customer acquisition expense; Google would be wiser to use all the cash that it's pouring into developing the new program for advertising instead. But a gangster would call this move what it really is: The point of Chrome OS—the only point of Chrome OS—is to screw with Microsoft.
And that's fine. When you've got money to burn, why not? Microsoft often does things for no reason other than to frustrate its rivals—its new search engine Bing being a prime example. But by focusing so much attention on a venture that's unlikely to do the company any good, Google will only hurt itself.