Five Questions About Google Chrome OS

Five Questions about Google Chrome OS
The big news this morning is Google's Chrome OS: a Linux-based operating system designed specifically for getting to the Web and Web apps faster. If that sounds familiar, that's because Google's Web browser, Chrome, was built around the same idea of rendering Web pages and Web applications faster and better than traditional browsers. Those claims have since been put to the test, and the results for Chrome have so far been mixed.

So will Google Chrome OS be any better? Is it going to be a useful alternative or just another way for Google to pull more people into Google's suite of online products like Google Docs, Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Reader?

There are still a lot of questions out there about this new OS, but here are the top five questions on my mind.

Is Google Chrome OS really practical for anything more powerful than a Mobile Internet Device (MID)?

When I first read Google's announcement for Chrome OS, two products immediately came to mind: Crunchpad and the rumored Apple tablet. To be honest, MIDs are the only plausible reason I can see for wanting to use this OS. Google says Chrome OS is designed "to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the Web in a few seconds." The company also says that for applications "the Web is the platform" not the OS. In other words, this OS isn't for running Microsoft Word or other desktop apps.

That's a problem, in my view. Sure, Google Docs is a great application for typing up a basic document, but it is far from the powerful tool that Microsoft Word is. So while Google says this OS is ideal for netbooks, I don't see why you would want to handicap yourself by using a less-functional OS on a piece of hardware -- like a netbook -- that has a nearly full-sized keyboard and a good processor. Google also says the OS can be used on desktops, which could be ideal for a public Internet terminal, but for the home user? Forget it. The only plausible use I can see for Chrome OS on your home computer would be under a dual-boot scenario to get on the Web quickly without waiting for Windows or OS X to start up. That's a similar scenario another cloud operating system, Good OS, was also envisioned for.

Will Chrome OS keep Microsoft up at night?

Don't make me laugh. Chrome OS is about as much a threat to Microsoft as a mosquito is to a bear -- assuming the mosquito doesn't have Malaria, that is. It's hard to envision Chrome OS significantly impacting a full-featured OS like Windows. Microsoft and Google aren't even on the same page when it comes to defining a cloud OS, so they're unlikely to compete in that arena either.

Microsoft's cloud OS, Azure, is a "scalable hosting environment on which developers can build and host their applications." In other words, Azure runs on servers, not home PCs, and is a tool for businesses that want to build Web applications and services. Google, on the other hand, is advocating Chrome OS as a solution for the home computer.

Google says virus free. Really?

Here we go again with another company building the mythological virus-free operating system. The fact, is you just can't build an operating system that is fully immune to malware and viruses. Yeah, yeah, I know -- you've owned a Mac for the last ten years and have never had one virus, but when you owned a Windows machine it was always down for maintenance.

We've all heard that story, and we all know about the Mac vs. PC security argument. Believe it or not, Mac viruses are out there; it's just that Mac malware is so scarce that it's highly unlikely you'll ever come across one, but a Mac is far from being perfectly secure. Don't forget that Safari running on a Mac was the first Web browser to go down at this year's PWN2OWN competition at CanSecWest. The truth is a computer's security is primarily dependent on a security conscious operator (you) and a hacker's reluctance to discover security compromises for that machine.

The same principle will apply to the Chrome OS. It's highly unlikely we'll see viruses for the new OS since it will start out as a such a niche product anyway. However, if Google's new operating system somehow gains widespread appeal, you can bet on seeing viruses and other malware tailor made for Chrome OS.

Will Chrome OS-powered devices be cheaper?

If Android is any guide, I'm not sure we'll see Chrome OS devices being that much cheaper. I can imagine we'll see netbooks and MIDs with 3G or 4G capability, making it a perfect fit for carriers looking to branch out beyond cell phones. So you're likely to find subsidized Chrome OS devices that are, in fact, cheaper.

But if you buy a device straight out, how much cheaper will it be compared to a Windows machine? Google will probably make Chrome OS available to hardware makers in a similar method to its Android platform for mobile phones, which means it will be free with some subtle restrictions based on the licensing agreement between Google and the manufacturer.

But if Android is free, how do you explain the fact that Android devices have such high full retail prices? To give you an idea of the difference consider that the out-of-contract retail price for the Android-powered G1 $399.99, while the recently released Windows-powered Samsung Jack costs $349.99. For $50 less, the Jack has arguably greater functionality than the G1, and you get a maximum of 16 GB of expandable storage, versus the G1's 8 GB. As for the newest Android-powered phone, the myTouch 3G, I expect it to have a comparable or even higher no-contract price than the G1, but we won't know for sure until the myTouch launches later this summer.

It may not be entirely fair to judge the cost of Chrome OS based on Android prices, but I'm just saying there's no guarantee that Google-powered devices will be cheaper than their Windows counterparts.

Will you be able to download Chrome OS like you would any other Linux build?

Common sense says yes, but notice that Google didn't mention anything in its announcement about downloading Chrome OS straight from its site. Google's blog post focused primarily on making Chrome OS available through third-party manufacturers. I'll take a pass on this one until Google makes its intentions clearer.

Chrome OS must search for a niche

Google's announcement is very interesting, and Chrome OS is another indication that Internet-focused devices are becoming more important to hardware and software developers. That being said, I'm still not convinced the world is ready to jettison their desktop-centric computers and reach for the clouds. I guess we'll know for sure when the first Chrome OS devices hit the market in the second half of 2010.

Connect with Ian Paul on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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