Google's Chrome may shift the OS landscape

Maybe the Google Midas touch can succeed where decades of Apple and Linux have failed--denting Microsoft’s OS dominance

Google is hosting an event today to offer the first official glimpse at the Chrome operating system. Chrome has ignited enthusiasm in an operating system market that has been largely stagnant for years. Google may succeed in shaking things up a bit.

When you mention Google in conjunction with any upcoming tool or service it tends to draw some attention. When you put Google in the same sentence with 'new operating system'--directly challenging Microsoft in a market it has mercilessly dominated for decades--the rumor mill kicks into high gear. Vegas may even be taking odds.

For all of the speculation and rumors, there is little that is really known about the Chrome OS. There have been fake Chrome OS downloads, spoofed screenshots, and a seemingly endless stream of hearsay and conjecture based on virtually nothing.

Hopefully that will change today when Google shows off a demo of the current state of Chrome. Ironically, whether or not Google will use the press event to announce availability of an early beta of the operating system is also a point of speculation. It seems safe to assume that we will at least know more about the Chrome OS than we do now.

Let's go ahead and join the speculation party, though. For a change of pace, though, we won't gossip about rumors regarding the operating system itself. Instead, we'll ponder what impact a Google Chrome OS can truly hope to have on the operating system market.

The war between Microsoft and Apple for computer platform dominance predates both the Windows and Mac operating systems. The battle between Windows and Mac has been a source of passionate debate since....well, since the Windows and Mac operating systems have existed. Even earlier if you consider the embryonic days of Windows when it was just a graphic environment that was installed over the MS-DOS operating system.

Linus Torvalds developed the Linux kernel in 1991. Linux did not really reach the mainstream until Red Hat succeeded in achieving some level of commercial success with it around 2000. There are a wide variety of Linux builds available today. Arguably the most popular currently is Ubuntu Desktop from Canonical.

So, the Microsoft-Apple rivalry dates back to the mid or early 80's, and the Windows-Linux debate goes back at least 10 years. For all of the passion and heated discussion on the topic of operating systems you would think they should be fairly even in market share.

The reality is that all versions of Mac and all versions of Linux combined make up barely more than six percent of the total operating system market. Even with a price tag of 'free' Linux has not managed to capture even one percent. Windows, on the other hand, occupies a healthy 92-plus percent of the market. Maybe Google can succeed where Apple and Linux have failed?

Google has a bit of a Midas touch, so it's not unreasonable to think it could find success with an operating system. It has stunned the mobile operating system market with Android, which is currently taking the world by storm with devices like the Motorola Droid.

Google has a Web-centric view of the world. Much of Google's rivalry with Microsoft revolves around a diametrically opposed vision of how computers should work, and the role that the operating system should play. Google is virtually synonymous with the Web, and it has been a staunch proponent of Web-based applications and services.

Ultimately, the success of the Chrome operating system hinges to some degree on the success of cloud computing, and which cloud wins the competition for cloud dominance. Many applications and services are becoming cloud-based, but Microsoft's Azure cloud leaves room for Windows to co-exist. Its possible that, rather than Chrome altering the OS landscape, Azure could alter cloud computing.

Google won't be fighting only Microsoft, either. In trying to replace the operating system with a Web-centric, cloud-focused alternative, Google will also be stepping on Mac OS X and desktop Linux (even though itself Chrome is built on Linux). Not only that, but trying to shift the paradigm to the cloud also means disrupting the culture of application development. Google will have to convince an entire industry built on developing standalone applications to transition to coding for the cloud.

Wherever the Chrome OS ultimately takes us, it seems assured of shaking things up at least a little bit. We'll have to wait a year or three to see how things turn out and find out whether Google can put a dent in Microsoft's dominance of the operating system.

Tony Bradley tweets as @PCSecurityNews, and can be contacted at his Facebook page.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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