Chrome OS could offend the open source community

Chrome OS is initially targeted at netbook computers but it's anticipated it will spread to more mainstream computing devices as time goes on

The announcement a few days ago of Google's new Chrome OS was simultaneously shocking and expected. It's a typically understated and quietly ambitious move on behalf of Google. It's also proof -- if it were needed -- that Google people are supremely smart. They have their sights firmly set on the future as well as the here and now.

Chrome OS is initially targeted at netbook computers but it's anticipated it will spread to more mainstream computing devices as time goes on. Like Intel's Moblin OS, Chrome OS is a proof of concept that will use the hothouse environment of netbook computing to grow and mature.

I'm reasonably sure that Chrome OS will offend the open source community. There may even be a major reaction against it. You might not see open source luminaries picketing the Googleplex (although I wouldn't be surprised), but there will almost certainly be a handful of inflammatory blog postings, and some very hot collars.

(See related: "How Google Chrome OS Could Beat Windows")

Figuring out what's so wrong about Chrome OS is also a perfect illustration of the strange ways and workings of the open source community. Here are Chrome OS's sins, laid out one-by-one.

1. Chrome OS will include proprietary technologies

Linux still lacks a high-quality open source Flash plugin. Practically the only choice for 100% site compatibility is to use Adobe's proprietary plugin, so Chrome OS will need to license and include it out of the box. HTML5 will lessen the need for Flash over time, especially on video sites (and it's interesting that Chrome OS isn't due until 2010, when HTML5 might have more of a foothold). However, the Flash plugin is definitely required at the present time. How can I keep up with Strong Bad's antics without it?

Then there are multimedia codecs. People are gonna want to play their tunes and watch their movies. There are open source versions of most popular codecs but to keep its nose clean and avoid litigation Google will have to license the patents covering them. This will offend the open source community, who see the software patenting system as broken and corrupt.

It's not just a software issue. Linux also has a poor set of fonts. To avoid users complaining about web pages looking crappy, Chrome OS will need to include the standard Microsoft Web fonts (Arial, Times New Roman, Courier etc.). It could probably do with including the more recent Microsoft Vista fonts too. These can be freely licensed (Microsoft was very careful to make this possible), and Google certainly has the cash to do so. But such a move will undoubtedly offend the community because the font packages won't be freely distributable.

Google could take the approach of having the user download proprietary software after installation, just like Ubuntu, but I doubt this will happen. It's too amateurish, and too scary for the non-technical user. It also resides in a legally grey area.

2. Chrome OS was created to take away your privacy

I hinted at this in my blog posting the other day, but the reality is that Chrome OS exists to give Google access to your data. All of it. Chrome OS might be free of charge but you'll pay for it with your online soul.

Money isn't the currency of the Internet. Data is. Micropayments aren't made in cents or pennies, but in details about your shopping habits, or where you plan to go on vacation.

Most ordinary users don't know about privacy issues, and normally take a laissez-faire attitude even if they do. But it's a very sore spot for open source advocates. Open source types have a tendency to be paranoid about their data. They make the bizarre assumption that not only do various covert agencies take an active interest in their data, but that they generate data that's worth taking an interest in.

3. Google is big, ergo Google is evil

Open source people are suspicious of corporations, especially ones that are big. I have open source friends who won't even shop at major supermarket chains, simply because of their size. It's worth remembering that many open source advocates refer to Microsoft as M$. The argument is often less about proprietary software and more about the fact Microsoft is a corporation that makes a lot of money. (And don't think it's just kids who use the "M$" reference; I've had conversations with big-wigs in the open source industry who use it.)

In some ways, Chrome OS fails almost at the first hurdle just because of who its parent is. Of course, to everybody outside of the open source community, Google's ownership of Chrome OS is extremely appealing. It's only in the topsy-turvy world of open source that it could be seen as a bad thing.

4. Chrome OS could destroy desktop Linux

This is perhaps the most interesting suggestion here. The only people who were probably tight-lipped at the announcement of Chrome OS yesterday were Canonical, the guys behind Ubuntu. Chrome OS could destroy Ubuntu, or at the very least kill dead its plans for world domination.

In some ways, Chrome OS will present no significant issues for most other versions of desktop Linux. These are used by members of the community who know what they're getting into. For want of a better way of describing it, they're niche products.

But Ubuntu was always aimed at the common man, and Canonical has been extremely successful at promoting this message. Chrome OS has the potential to make Ubuntu entirely redundant. Some people will stick with it, of course, but Chrome OS is aimed at exactly the same type of general user as Ubuntu. The two will compete, and Chrome OS will win because Google has virtually infinite resources and brainpower compared to Canonical.

Whatever happens, it's clear that the landscape of desktop Linux has once again changed forever.

5. Chrome OS is not a community Linux

Although it's early days, it's looking like Chrome OS will be a "product" released by Google, much the same as Google Earth or Picasa, or even Gmail.

The way it will work is that Google makes Chrome OS available, and you can make use of it if you wish. They might invite community feedback, and perhaps even source code patches, but they are in charge. You get what they give you.

Compare and contrast this approach to Ubuntu, or most versions of Linux, where the community drives the project forward. If a new feature appears in Ubuntu, it's probably because the community requested it. If a new feature appears in Chrome OS, it's probably because a Google engineer thought it was a good idea.

In many ways, in the way it's handled and marketed, Chrome OS may have more in common with proprietary software than with traditional open source. This might not be a bad thing; the community is simultaneously one of the most useful and most detrimental elements of open source. Practically since day one, the community has turned open source projects like Linux into ghettos, and have a set of rules that must be followed or ostracization will follow (as companies like Novell found out).

Irony

Of course, none of this matters. Chrome OS isn't aimed at Linux fanatics. It's aimed at the ordinary user. Who cares what the fanatics think?

But it does matter. A lot.

The open source community has a knee-jerk tendency, and also ownership issues -- there's a belief amongst many that anything that originates in the community must stay within the community.

Criticism hurts, even if it comes from a small number of people and isn't entirely rational. I can easily imagine getting to a stage where Chrome OS is consistently referred in press articles and blog-postings as "the much-criticised Chome OS project".

When these kind of epithets start to migrate upwards to the mainstream press, it might make it hard for Chrome OS to gain traction.

Chrome OS is a test of whether open source can actually live-up to its declaration of freedom. Most open source licenses are about freedom, provided certain caveats are followed.

Google can diffuse the situation a little by rectifying the criticisms above. It could heavily involve the community in decision-making, for example (or at least give the impression of doing so). But some of the other issues are intractable. People will want to play their movies, and Google can't break the law, so it must license patented codecs. And if Chrome OS doesn't look beautiful, with beautiful proprietary fonts, nobody will touch it.

Make no mistake: Chrome OS is going to push and pull the Linux community in lots of different directions. The coming years should be very interesting indeed.

Keir Thomas is the author of several books on Ubuntu, including the free-of-charge Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.

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Keir Thomas

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