Friday, July 10, 2009

10 Things We're Dying to Know About Chrome OS

This morning the blogosphere is abuzz with the late-breaking news about Google's new Chrome OS, a combination of the Chrome browser and windowing system running on top of a Linux kernel.
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But more important than what's being announced is what hasn't been said. People already have a lot of questions about the Chrome OS and the answers may ultimately determine how well it succeeds as a true competitor to both Microsoft and Apple, as is being widely speculated. We'll explore some of those questions in this post.
In typical Google fashion, the Chrome OS announcement is filled with glorious tidbits of information that add up to paint an overall picture of what's ahead. They've told us the OS will run on standard x86 and ARM chips, that they're working OEMs to bring it to several netbooks by next year, that the code will be open-sourced later this year, that it will run any web applications, and that, yeah, it overlaps a little with Android.
However, what we don't know about the Chrome OS could fill a room.
What We Don't Know About Chrome OS
What will happen when you go offline?
If the Chrome OS is all about running web apps in a browser, that begs the question - what will happen when there's no internet connection available? Of course, Google apps like Gmail can run offline using Gears, but Gears isn't everywhere yet. Another likely possibility is that Chrome OS will support the upcoming standard HTML5, which also offers offline capabilities. However, not all web applications will support that least not immediately. That just leaves the "windowing system" running on the Linux kernel. Will it, like any other Linux OS, allow us to install software applications? That seems less likely since Chrome OS is all about the move away from the desktop to the web. The only real solution to the offline conundrum would be to bundle in a cellular data service with the netbook so you have always-on connectivity.
No More Desktop Software Apps: But What About Photo Uploads? Creating a PDF? Editing a Video?
Ultimately, this argument boils down to the "Photoshop" question. Anytime we talk about moving the OS to the cloud, someone inevitably says: "but you can't run Photoshop in the cloud!" That's true, but none of us run Photoshop on our netbooks, either. Still, Chrome OS on a netbook is only step one - desktop and laptop computers are sure to come next. But how will Chrome OS handle the tasks that netbooks can't? Photo software, including Google's own Picasa can't work in a browser least, not today. It still requires the intermediate step of importing photos from camera to PC then uploading from PC to web. Will this workflow still be possible thanks to Chrome OS's windowing system and Linux kernel? Then there are the more complex tasks that also require an OS: video editing, using Adobe software, using Microsoft Office. Of course, we know Google's response to that last one, but there's still a good-sized userbase out there who prefers Office to Docs - will they be willing to give it up and move to the cloud at last?
How Much Will Chrome OS Cost?
A lot of people are wondering if Chrome OS will be free, an idea likely brought about by the fact that everything that Google offers consumers has also been free. Free webmail, free Google Docs, free tools (IM, Calendar, Photos, etc.), free Chrome browser. But will the OS itself be free? Will it be ad-supported? If it's not free, then how much of a difference in price points will there have to be between a Chrome OS netbook and a Windows 7 netbook for consumers to switch to this new, unknown entity?
Will It Run Third-Party Applications?
If we had to bet, we'd bet yes on this one, but there just aren't enough details on this yet. Although Google is open-sourcing the code for Chrome OS later this year, we don't know if that means they're going to let anyone and everyone build apps for it. Maybe they will go the Apple route and lock down the OS the way Apple locks down the iPhone and allow us to install "approved" Chrome OS apps only. A lockdown ensures that everything will "just work" - a phrasing Google even uses in their blog post about it...and a methodology that has proven very successful for Apple. (It's easy for things to work when you control it with a heavy hand). But locking down an OS seems so very anti-open source and so un-Googlely. Will we end up having to "jailbreak" Chrome OS one day?
Can I Use My Old Printer?
Although less of a concern to those of us on the cutting edge who are always buying the latest gadgets and electronics, the hardware compatibility issue is still an unknown entity. Of course, thanks to its Linux kernel, the OS will include a bunch of drivers...but which ones? Since Google hasn't adopted a version of Linux that's already out there, we don't know how extensive the driver support will be. And, as everyone knows, getting manufacturers to build drivers for your OS, (nevermind getting them to provide you with ones that work properly!) is one of the hardest parts of having a successful OS.
Will Chrome OS Run Firefox?
Ha! As if! It's highly unlikely that Google would want to support competitive browsers on an OS built to run Chrome. But wait...this leads to a grey area when it comes to antitrust issues like those Microsoft currently faces in the EU. Over there, European officials are demanding that Microsoft not bundle IE with Windows, claiming that doing so is anti-competitive. But what about when the browser becomes the OS (in a sense)? Will Google now be forced to support alternatives? They might. Chrome isn't a prerequisite for a web OS: Firefox's latest version also supports HTML5, so it could just as easily run web apps both online and off.
Does this mean Google and Apple will No Longer be Friends?
As noted on VentureBeat, Google and Apple currently share an alliance of sorts. Their boards share two directors, Google chief executive, Eric Schmidt, and former Genentech chief executive, Arthur Levinson. How can this relationship last now that Google is clearly gunning for the OS market? Although people like to pit Google versus Microsoft, it's really Google versus Microsoft and Apple. Apple has a nice, healthy chunk of the consumer OS pie - the very slice that a Google OS is aiming for, especially considering its launch is on a netbook. However, Apple has clearly shown no interest - at least so far - in doing netbooks, preferring to focus their efforts on high-end computers and portable mini computers in the form of iPods and iPhones. But Google is already competing with Apple on the phone front, too, thanks to Android, and on the browser front, thanks to Chrome. Will an OS move be the last straw in the two companies' friendship?
Linux on the Netbook Hasn't Sold - Will a Google Brand Sell it Now?
We originally believed, as many open source advocates did, that the rise of the netbook would lead to uptake in consumer use of the Linux OS. However, that did not turn out to be the case. Instead, Windows XP is the dominant netbook OS and Microsoft's next OS, Windows 7, will launch netbook-ready. What was the problem with Linux on the netbook? According to major netbook manufacturer MSI Wind, the problem was Linux itself - MSI's Director of U.S. Sales Andy Tung said this of consumers: "They start playing around with Linux and start realizing that it's not what they are used to. They don't want to spend time to learn it so they bring it back to the store. The return rate is at least four times higher for Linux netbooks than Windows XP netbooks." Will branding a Linux OS "Google" and telling consumers to just load up the browser lead to simplicity, as Google hopes, or just more confusion?
Will Chrome OS Turn into an Enterprise Play?
Although Chrome OS will launch on the netbook, how far does Google plan to take their new technology? To the consumer desktop? To the small business? To the enterprise? Google has already shown how competitive they are when it comes to fighting Microsoft Office, will they do the same in fighting Microsoft's foothold as the business desktop OS of choice? If so, they may have a tougher battle ahead of them than they think. It may be one thing to get the IT guys to ditch Office software for a simplified cloud version, but ditch their OS? Not so much. The Windows desktop OS is designed to work with the rest of the Windows stack, including everything from Exchange Server to SharePoint and many others. In a client-server setting, IT admins create server-based policies that control everything about the corporate OS including browser settings, backup policies, logon restrictions, file access, permissions, updates, and so much more. What can you control when the OS is the web? Not much. And that could be a big problem.
Does "open source" mean Google expects the community to maintain the code?
In the open source world, the development and maintenance of code is crowd-sourced to a community of developers. By open-sourcing the Chrome OS code, is Google saying that they're not steering the OS ship? If so, that would be a very different way to do business than how Microsoft and Apple currently work. And it's somewhat an iffy one. While it's one thing to buy a Linux OS labeled as such, all consumers will see when buying Chrome OS is the big label reading "Google." They will have expectations that the company is running the show, not an amorphous community of open-sourcers. What will happen when something goes wrong? There's no "Apple Genius Bar" to take the computer to and no "Microsoft Support" hotline to call. (Or will there be?) Selling an OS is only step one. Supporting it is just as crucial. What level of responsibility does Google plan for that


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