We’ve heard the news from every source out there – Google is launching an operating system. The details are scarce, but the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive (read our own Ben Parr’s recap here). After all, Google is the new Microsoft, right? Everything they touch turns to gold (*cough* Jaiku *cough*), so a Google OS must be to Windows what silver bullets are for Robert Pattinson.
Not so fast. Someone has to play the devil’s advocate here, and since the devil has a lot going in its favor this time, I’ll gladly lay out the case.
Before we start, let’s get something out of the way: I’m a fan of both Google and Microsoft – I don’t adore everything these two companies have done, but both have had many great moments. I’ve been using Windows since 1.0 (yes, you read that right), I’ve enjoyed my ride with Windows XP, but I’ve also been criticizing Vista for lack of innovation and not taking the huge upcoming netbook market into consideration.
On the other hand, I’ve expected Google to create an OS at some point and I definitely think that it’s a good idea. If it manages to be what Google promises – fast, secure, and simple – it’ll be a great addition to the somewhat stale OS market.
The bumpy road ahead
With that out of the way, let’s look at some problems Google will inevitably face. Details aside, Microsoft’s domination of the OS market is due to two reasons:
1. It’s very hard to get all the hardware makers to create drivers (or create them yourself) for your OS.
2. It’s very hard to get all the software makers to create versions of their software that’ll work on your OS.
Say what you want about Windows, but between the previous version (Windows XP) and the current version (Vista), you can get all of your hardware to run. Eight year old plotters, pro sound cards, ancient el cheapo WiFi USB adapters – there’s a way to get them all to work on Windows. Now, I can hear the angry wail of a thousand Linux users coming this way (for the record: I occasionally use Linux myself for specific purposes), but there’s no denying it: you can’t do that on Linux. No matter what distribution you use, in many cases you will encounter hardware problems. And often, you won’t be able to solve them. I’ve seen many of my friends switching to Linux, sticking with it for as long as a year, and then simply switching back to Windows because some piece of hardware won’t work.
When it comes to software, there’s the ancient “Photoshop argument,” which can be summed up in this way: if you’re a long time Windows user, chances are you’ve got a favorite piece of software that won’t run on Linux. It can be a game, or it can be Photoshop (and no, GIMP is not that good), it can be something else, but there will always be something missing. I can live with that. I’ve always got at least three working computers at home; I can run many different OSs if necessary; many users don’t have the time or the will to do that. They want to have one computer that runs all of their stuff, period. Yes, I know Chrome OS is all about web apps. But not all apps can be web apps just yet; between the apps already supported on Linux, and all the wonderful web apps available out there, will it be enough for the average user? We’ll have to wait and see.
Can it be done?
So where does that leave Google Chrome OS? It’s a tough spot, but it’s not hopeless. First, Google has the advantage of being, well, Google. If they set their mind to do something, if the initial betas get good reception, the hardware and the software makers will want to work with them. It takes time to port software to other OSs, and it takes time to create drivers for hardware. When it comes to old hardware, it also takes too much money for most companies to bother, and with this regard, Google will always be at a disadvantage.
But Google can afford to look forward and wait it out. They’ve got the resources and the people to do it. What they need is the support of the open source community, and they’ve already got a big problem with that: Chrome isn’t available for Linux yet. That’s right, the browser that’ll be the center of the upcoming Chrome OS, which will be based on Linux, doesn’t work on Linux right now (well, if you don’t count the early developer beta.) Google needs to do better, because no amount of money and resources can replicate what a huge international community of volunteers can do.
The Firefox lesson
If they manage to do that, it’ll be entirely possible to pull it off. Want to know how I can be so sure? Firefox. When Firefox came to be, it faced a very steep uphill battle. Internet Explorer was the browser of choice – yes, it kinda sucked, but Vista also kinda sucks, too. Still, most IE users didn’t even think about switching to a new browser; just like most Windows users don’t even consider the possibility of switching to another OS – for now. But Firefox developers worked diligently, adding feature after feature, and gaining enormous support from the open source community and developers, which created thousands of great add-ons. The momentum was building fast, and now, although IE still has the biggest market share, Firefox has already won.
The same thing can happen with Chrome OS. The circumstances and the timing are a bit different, though; Windows 7 will come out before Google Chrome OS will; if it performs up to users’ expectations, it’ll be harder for Google to push through. By the time Chrome OS supports enough hardware and software to be deemed really usable by a significant portion of users, Microsoft will have a lot of time to fix things. On the other hand, Microsoft changes slowly; it took them years to bring IE up to speed.
It’ll be a long, excruciating battle, but I can already tell you who’s going to win. You. Us. Whatever happens, we – the users – will have a better, faster, simpler, more web-oriented operating system. Will it have a Microsoft or a Google tag on it? Ultimately, it’s not even that important.Full article: http://mashable.com/2009/07/08/chrome-os-photoshop/