Friday, July 10, 2009

The Google Chrome OS

As the point of this blog is allegedly tech, maybe I should talk about tech once in a while...

There's an article on Slate discussing why the new Google Chrome OS is doomed before it ever gets out of the gate. I'm not sure I'd write it off just yet, and some of Farhad Manjoo's reasoning is just silly, but all in all it does look as if the odds are against it. Dealing with the 5 reasons why it's a bad idea, in order:

Linux is hard to love. This part of Manjoo's argument is the weakest, because he's cherry-picking his facts. Yes, we know, MS Office (Word, Excel, etc) won't run on Linux. Has he heard of Open Office? Of the GIMP for image editing? Apparently not. Are there features of the MS products that the Linux counterparts don't support? Not that he mentions... Apparently if it doesn't have the MS stamp on it, it doesn't exist.

Likewise, his argument about hardware installation is weaker than it first appears, mostly because he's apparently unaware of the progress that's been made in making Linux more user-friendly. The vast majority of hardware issues can be resolved much more easily than his example.

But. There's that last 5% of hardware issues that are tricky, or that involve multiple steps. There's less hand-holding in the Linux world, and a general assumption that you're willing to learn a little something about the computer you're using. Those who want to pay a couple of thousand dollars for a computer and then specifically avoid learning anything about it are advised to give their money to Steve Jobs, buy an Apple, and pat themselves on the back for being precious unique snowflakes. [set snark=OFF]

There's also the issue of the entire ecosystem. I still use Windows. I could make the jump to Linux for 95% of what I do. I'm not worried about the oh-so-terrifying setup process (my last Linux install went smoother than any Windows installation has ever gone for me) or that I might have to configure something myself. But it's the last 5% of apps, the occasional game, the tool that I need to use because my workplace has standardized on it and while there are plenty of Linux tools that do the same thing, they're not file-system-level compatible... and it doesn't make sense to have a second computer just for those few things. I suspect I'm not the only one. And this is the biggest hurdle Linux (or Chrome) is going to have. I can use Open Office for writing and spreadsheets, GIMP for image editing, GnuCash instead of Quicken for managing my finances.... but if that last 5% of software is my favorite game, or a business-critical application, then I'm locked in to Windows no matter how much I loathe parts of it.

We aren't ready to run everything on the web. Again, an argument that gets weaker by the day as Web options develop. But this section contains what is actually Manjoo's strongest argument--that once everything moves to the web, it doesn't matter what OS the user is running anyway. That's the entire point of moving to the web, to do everything through that interface so it works the same way in any standards-compliant browser. (Which rules out Microsoft, but they're making progress... oh darn, there goes that snark again.) So if you're using Windows, or a Mac, or Fred's Kustom Home-Made Hand-Carved All-Natural OS, and are satisfied with it...why switch to Chrome?

Microsoft is a formidable opponent. Yes, indeed. As Tolkien put it, "It does not do to leave a dragon out of your plans, if he lives nearby." MS isn't a particularly innovative company and hasn't been for years. They wait until someone else demonstrates that a product can make it, and what features are necessary to gain popularity--then either buy it up or brew their own. And they have lots of smart people working for them, and the deep pockets to keep working on it until they get it right, generally around version 3 or 4. At that point, the second-to-none MS marketing team goes to work, and the competition gets ulcers.

Google Fails Often. I'm not sure what to make of this argument, which seems to boil down to "Google tries lots of things and not all of them work." Well, yes. The same could be said of a certain company in Redmond. And the small market share for the Chrome browser isn't necessarily an indicator that it's a failure, given its short time on the market and out of beta. Firefox demonstrated that if you do something better than MS, you can take share away from them. And that giving Microsoft some competition spurs it on to more innovation itself. (Development on Internet Explorer had essentially stopped until Firefox started taking market share away and goading MS into doing something about it. Monopolies lead to higher prices, slower innovation, and poorer quality. That iron law of economics has not been repealed for the benefit of the Redmond Behemoth.) Most companies fail often. Few have deep enough pockets to survive more than 2 or 3 such failures. Google can, so it can seem like a long record of failure. In fact, it's very difficult to predict what's going to take off, what's going to be popular, etc. So they throw everything at the wall & see what sticks. Failure is part of the process. Thomas Edison said some very similar things; most of what he did failed. The few successes made up for it.

Chrome makes no business sense. Again, he raises a point that I wonder if Google had considered. What's the business case? Attracting people to Google so they'll use Google's tools? They could do that in Windows. Push costs down to help grow the netbook market? Microsoft has shown it's willing to cut incredible deals & take a loss to keep its hegemony. It's hard to see how this leads to increased share of an existing market or substantial growth in an emerging market that Google wants to be a part of.

So, bottom line. Doomed? Not necessarily. Manjood overstates his case a bit. But the odds are against it. Given some time and some luck, it may become a niche player. Of course, at one time, that's what Microsoft was, too....

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