Sunday, 12 July 2009

Why "Chrome OS" won't have Cupertino or Redmond quaking in their boots

As embarrassing as it may be for Google, there really is no need for Eric Schmidt, their CEO, to resign from Apple's board. After all, their recently announced Chrome OS is not their first attempt at an operating system, and by all accounts, it's even less of a threat to Apple than Android, their other free OS offering.

To understand why, let's look at what Google are proposing, which is essentially a stripped down Linux distro, bundled with the Chrome web browser. As a product, this is in no way comparable with either Microsoft Windows or OS X. Why?

There's a lot of confusion about what an operating system actually is, and this is not helped by Apple and Microsoft confusing matters by marketing their operating systems by focusing on the features of the applications that they bundle with them.

These days, an OS comprises of the following:
  • A kernel, which manages memory and controls processes (for Apple, this is the Mach kernel, for Google OS, this is Linux, whilst Microsoft have their own home-brew)
  • Various services running on top of the kernel, for things like the file system (Apple uses a BSD layer, called "Darwin," Google will presumably use GNU, whilst Microsoft, once again, do their own thing)
  • Device drivers that allow the software to talk to all kinds of different hardware (Apple and Microsoft invest an enormous amount in this area, whilst support is sometimes lacking in Linux distros)
  • Application frameworks & GUI - these are the crown jewels of a modern OS. They're what makes a Mac Mac-like (Cocoa), and Window the distinctive thing that it is. This is where Apple switches from open source to its own propriety layer. Chrome OS will apparently not provide an SDK for third parties to access this layer
  • Applications - these are core apps that you'd expect to come with any OS, such as a text editor and file browser. These days you'd also expect things like e-mail client and web browser, plus plenty more besides. Chrome OS will only come with a web browser, (ironically, this is based upon Apple's own Webkit rendering engine.)

In other words, Chrome is simply a bundle of existing technologies: Linux, GNU and Webkit. There will apparently be no support for 3rd party applications - taking a stand similar to that Apple initially adopted for the iPhone, where they said that they would not allow 3rd party developers access to the iPhone, recommending instead that they developed web applications to run in Safari. Imagine how things would have turned out for iPhone had they stuck to that line. We would never have had the App Store!

If anything, Android looks like a more promising technology than Chrome for netbooks - and that's really saying something. The sad truth is that Google will now have two OSs for low end computing, and apparently neither of them will offer serious competition for Apple and Microsoft. Seems like Schmidt can stay on Apple's board for a while yet.


  1. Don't you realize the google would never do something like that, they are clearly not giving us the whole picture. If they were then why isn't chrome os out already, to do what your saying is relatively easy (for google engineers). There is more to chrome OS we haven't seen, its hard to guess what but the fact that its Chrome OS, their web browser, and not google os, containing all google services which happen to be web based anyway, means something. (possibly more integration between the browser/OS)

  2. Hi Eric.

    Not sure I agree. Google always stress the importance of open standards and the web. It's very unlikely, therefore, that they'll build proprietary hooks into the Chrome OS. If web apps are platform neutral, as Google proposes, then by definition, their Chrome OS platform will be nothing more than a Web browser bolted onto a Linux distro, with Google Gears support.

    The only new things that they seem to be proposing are accelerated start up and a new windowing system.

  3. No there is more then that there, you are not looking at the whole picture. Just because you haven't thought of anything doesn't mean google hasn't. One thing I can imagine them doing (which would explain why it is taking so long) is creating an environment (open standard) that further fuses the web with our computer. Not just in Chrome OS but in their counterparts on Mac OS X and Windows. How would Chrome OS be functional if you couldn't use it to do a simple action such as upload pictures to picasa or facebook, or save a document to a usb drive. What if they create an API that allows websites (granted permission by the user) to access your plugged in camera to upload pics. Or a framework to allow growl like notifications from sites like google cal and mail to flow into your desktop. I don't know what they are doing but they are not making a linux distro bundled with chrome and thats it. it just doesnt make sense to write a new crippled OS whose only advantage is that is has a quick cold boot. They clearly mean to expand on it as they wrote in their blog post that it is starting out on netbooks but will be expanded to desktop computers. What would be the point of using a crippled OS on todays average pc desktop that has 4 cores a nice gpu and 4gb of RAM and a 500gb hd. Thats todays computer, what will it look like in 2010?

  4. Hi. Agreed it's all speculation at this stage.

    I suspect that Google Gears is what will be used for handling things like uploading pics, and I understand Google is working on getting this accepted as a standard.

    Again - if Google creates propriety hooks from their OS into their web apps, they'll defeat the whole point of them being web apps, and possibly bring a whole load of anti-trust problems down upon them.

    Besides, that's just not Google's style. It's more of a Microsoft "embrace and extend" strategy from the 1990s.

    ...that's my personal view, anyway!

  5. It just still doesn't make sense, if they don't do something in Chrome OS that differentiates it from everyone else, then what is Google's goal?

  6. There is much that we don't know, yet, about Chrome. The author is speculating in his banal direction. Let me postulate my biases, by throwing up a conspiracy theory. It's more fun to think that Apple and Google are in cahoots to take down Microsoft from the top and the bottom ends.

    Linux on the desktop is going nowhere. Even when it is competing with Windows, the Linux desktop helps Microsoft. It does that, because X11 copied the Window's look and fee. It trains new people to adopt Microsoft's ways. That is not good for Apple.

    Chrome, I suspect, will look and feel like a Mac. Initially, Chrome's applications will be web apps. If you need power and elegance, you will be encouraged to buy a Mac. That helps both Apple and Google. as It undercuts any need for Microsoft.

    Apple was never suited to compete in the e-waste, razor thin profit margin, low end computer market. Currently, if you have a cheap Low End computer and you need more power, you buy a mainstream Wintel machine which has Windows on it.

    Google wants all the casual Internet users for its web applications and search engines so they will see Google's advertisements. Those casual users never push their hardware. This is especially so, if most of the heavy lifting in Chrome is done on Google's, not the users, hardware. That allows people to buy very cheap computers, which they seem to like to do, anyway.

    If Chrome is Linux which acts like the Mac OS, then you will buy a Mac when your needs expand. That is when Web applications are no longer fast, efficient, secure and feature filled enough to satisfy you. There will be less of a learning curve. Most people who use computer are not geeks; they want services and applications, not to learn programming.

    Now, the price for the learning curve is in going from Wintel to a Mac. But, if you buy a Chrome netbook, as your first computer, and learn it. Then, when you need more power and applications, it will be easier to buy a Mac than converting to Wintel. Apple wins that way.

    This would be enough reason for Apple to allow Google to use its look and feel. Google get what it wants: visitors to its web sites. Apple picks up customers who need more than Google will provide.

  7. Mac OS X uses the XNU kernel, which is derived from Mach, but is not the same.