Google's Chrome OS is no Windows killer just yet, analyst says

Google's Chrome OS is moving closer to reality, but does Google's new operating system pose any threat to Windows?

Microsoft would surely say no, arguing that Chrome OS is little more than a Web browser, and that users need the richer functionality offered by Windows machines, whether they take the form of laptops, desktops or netbooks.

Also read: Rise of the netbook 

But perhaps Chrome OS - designed mainly to run Web applications - is ideal for netbooks, the name of which seems to suggest a device optimized for browsing the Web.

Aberdeen Group research analyst Andrew Borg believes that Chrome OS will have an impact on Windows - "if the emphasis is on the long run. However, I don't think there'll be much impact in the near term. The notion of a cloud-centric operating system vs. a file format-centric operating system does make a lot of sense. But it requires ubiquitous broadband connectivity and widely accessible cloud storage. I don't think we're quite there at the utility or appliance level, which is what you need to replace the Wintel laptop concept."

Google executive Linus Upson, vice president of engineering for Chrome, recently said that 60 per cent of businesses could replace Windows machines with computers running Chrome OS, according to a New York Times article.

But despite Upson's confidence, IDC researchers predict that Windows will retain complete dominance of the netbook market, just as it has done with desktops. Shipments of "mini notebooks," as IDC calls them, will hover around 95 per cent Windows through 2014, IDC predicts. Android, Chrome and Linux will have minimal market share, according to the analyst firm.

Still, things change quickly in the technology world. Google on Tuesday talked up a good game on Chrome OS, saying Acer and Samsung will sell Chrome-based computers worldwide in mid-2011. Acer and Samsung together hold more than 35 per cent of the netbook market, according to Gartner.

Chrome OS netbooks will be encrypted, have Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, and feature offline access to Google Docs and other applications available on the Chrome Web store. Users won't have to worry about security updates since they will be pushed automatically, and Chrome-based netbooks will get faster over time because of frequent OS updates and a lack of installed applications to slow the hardware down, Google said.

For businesses, Google has teamed with Citrix to tie Chrome netbooks to Citrix Receiver, an option for remote access to business applications such as SAP. This is similar to the previously announced "chromoting" technology, a feature that lets users access Windows applications remotely over Internet connections.

Google's entrance into the netbook market means that Microsoft can't simply coast if it wants to maintain dominance. But even if Google's cloud-centric approach wins the day, it wouldn't preclude Microsoft from beating Google at its own game.

Don't count out Microsoft

In a future with ubiquitous Internet connectivity, the Chrome OS type of "architecture would have an advantage over the older architecture, but let's not underestimate what Microsoft might do in that context," Borg says. "Certainly, they're taking the cloud very seriously. We're talking about a timeframe that might be in years."

Windows has a strong foothold among enterprise netbook buyers, with IT professionals surveyed late last year by market research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey choosing Windows 7 and Windows XP over alternatives such as Linux, Mac OS X and Google Chrome.

Current-generation netbooks that run Android may certainly be replaced with Chrome OS machines, Borg notes. But, "the number of netbooks that run Windows 7, I think, dominates at this point. And I wouldn't think in the near term you would see those ratios change dramatically."

IPads and other tablets are starting to eat into netbook sales, and the word "netbook"' as defined today, will "basically dissolve," in part because today's netbooks aren't that powerful, Borg predicts. The concept of lightweight computers is being taken over by tablets, and at the same time today's laptops will become faster, lighter, and cheaper. Thus, they are becoming similar to netbooks "but they may not have the same name," Borg says.

Indeed, Google is already starting to shift the terminology. Google has previously referred to Chrome OS machines as netbooks, but in today's announcement the company instead used the word "notebook," perhaps suggesting a more powerful machine.

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

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