So is ChromeOS a desktop winner? I think not.

So is ChromeOS a desktop winner? I think not.


When Google announced their ChromeOS there was a flurry of comment and opinion on what this could mean for the GNU/Linux user and the future of free software. Our esteemed editor, Tony Mobily made a bold statement (albeit framed as a question) at the time that Google's ChromeOS could turn GNU/Linux into a "desktop winner". I'm not sure that it's true.

Whatever happens of course the fact is that when somebody of Google's size and impact enters a market, there will be winners and losers, losses and gains. Now that the dust has well and truly settled let's have another look at the potential impact of ChromeOS.

The need for a desktop OS

Chrome OS users won't know that part of their OS is free software -- or what that means. That should ring some alarm bells for us

Even the most ardent web-centric user will struggle to argue that there will be a continuing need for a 'real' desktop OS for some time yet. When it was suggested here that GNOME and KDE has shot each other out of the market, there was considerable response to the contrary. As others have pointed out, some applications of software require more than the current batch of web-tools can offer. As much as AJAX has added some real-time feedback to the web, it still pales in comparison to a proper desktop API and I say this as a long-term web (and AJAX) developer. As long as we have a large populace of disconnected users we will require an OS to suit their needs. There's no reason why GNU/Linux (or any free OS for that matter -- let's not limit this to GNU/Linux) couldn't fill that niche more adequately than it does now. Perhaps one of the unexpected side effects of Chrome OS will be to force other OS developers to make bolder and stronger moves into the web-based-OS market. This transition could find those users with occasional or unreliable net connections looking to free software for solutions. This makes sense as it is traditional for free software to pick up where proprietary has unceremoniously dumped their customers on the roadside of "progress".

Having said all that, I don't think any emergence of Chrome OS will result in the name or reputation of GNU or Linux becoming better known. Chrome OS users will be just that, Chrome OS users. I doubt they will know they are using "Linux" or that some part of their chosen OS is free software -- or what that means. Don't believe me, ask an Android user and ask yourself how often you heard the terms free software or open source during the launch of the Nexus One. As free software advocates this alone should ring some alarm bells for us.

Whilst Chrome OS may give OEMs an option, I can't realistically see it opening their eyes to GNU/Linux in general

I also can't see that Chrome OS will present greater opportunities to get free software onto OEM PCs. The OEMs will possibly offer Chrome OS on their netbooks but if they don't offer GNU/Linux or another free OS now, why would the emergence of Chrome OS change their minds? The OEM market is fraught with lock-in deals, "We recommend .." statements and tight, tight margins. You'd think the latter would help them move to free software but if you ask me, OEMs are like frogs in a pot of slowly heated water and now they don't know whether they should, let alone how they would, climb out. Maybe I am too cynical but whilst Chrome OS may give them an option, I can't realistically see it opening their eyes to GNU/Linux in general.

The re-definition of the netbook

One thing I do hope will result from Chrome OS is the re-defition of what constitutes a netbook. When Asus launched the EeePC on an unsuspecting world, the netbook was a clear definition. A small footprint, lightweight, minimal solid-state storage, designed to be used on the move. What it was not, was a desktop replacement. I think it was this that caused the EeePC to take off. We had notebooks with their 17" screens, 250GB HDD and desktop-replacement capabilities. They were powerful but they were heavy and cumbersome. Even the most lightweight 17" widescreen takes up space in your bag. The niche the EeePC 701 tapped into was for those who wanted something bigger than a blackberry but without the hassle of a desktop OS.

This is why GNU/Linux was a good choice, small compact, adaptable, runs on slower (and less resource hungry) hardware. But of course Microsoft couldn't have that and they started moving. Suddenly we were getting Windows XP on so-called netbooks but -- due to the higher minimal requirements of Windows XP -- these netbooks come with spinning hard disks, slower boot times, bigger (and bigger) screens and more weight. In short the current bartch of netbooks more closely resemble a rehash of the power-notebooks of a few years ago. These -- even running GNU/Linux -- defeat the point of a netbook for me, and I suspect I am not alone. What I want from a netbook is what the EeePC gave me. Perhaps increase the CPU and double the RAM, okay and give me a 9 inch screen but don't do anything that increases the form factor or footprint. I think the niche that the EeePC 701 discovered is largely unconquered and is sitting there waiting for continuation. I think Google noticed this too.

The netbook needs re-definition and if Chrome OS leads to that result, it could see a re-emergence of GNU?Linux in that arena

Chrome OS would fit perfectly onto a machine which did not have the resources for local applications. It fits perfectly onto a device which expects to do everything via the web and is aimed at those on the move. Documents, communication and simplicity of use are key in that environment. The current crop of "netbooks" over shoot by a country mile. The netbook needs re-definition and if Chrome OS leads to that result, it could see a re-emergence of GNU/linux in that arena. It may seem like I've just contradicted myself there. If the OEMs won't trust free software to put it on their desktops, why would they do so on their re-defined netbooks? I can think of two reasons:

  1. GNU/Linux has a proven track record in that arena and

  2. free software is much more customisable which enables them to add value without inherent costs to their netbook. Don't believe me? Look at the HTC Hero handset. It is the first to be Android powered without Google branding and has what HTC is branding the Sense UI, adding what HTC hope is value to Android. It's harder and more expensive to do that if the base OS is proprietary.

Chrome OS will provide -- probably Google's own -- web-based tools and applications, but if an OEM wants to add value via custom configuration tools and some desktop applications (something to play presentations springs to mind), GNU/Linux could be a good way to go. Also as said GNU/Linux has proven success in this market and other hardware manufacturers are announcing similar devices already. The Lenovo Skylight for example won't be running Chrome OS but will be running a custom GNU/Linux. So, given the market direction, it's possible that Chrome OS will re-open doors for people like Canonical that Microsoft tried to close by having the OEMs change the hardware. Incidentally, the emergence of devices like this was one of the things I had in mind when I made some predictions in early 2009 about the future of free software during the economic downturn. Of course I didn't get everything right but that's quite normal for me and I'll revisit those predictions in greater depth later.

Some predictions

Regardless of what happens in relation to GNU/Linux it will be interesting to see Chrome OS in action. Details are still (even after this length of time) a little sketchy but I'll take the plunge and make some -- perhaps not too bold -- predictions:

  • A increased re-emergence of smaller form-factor netbooks (as outlined above and for some reason they are being called "smartbooks").
  • A significant tie-in with existing Google Apps (no branier and already happening with Android)
  • An increasing (but possibly late) concern for the amount of influence and control Google has over the web-centric experience. Has the horse already bolted on this one?
  • An emergence of a Chrome OS marketplace (à la Android but not quite the same)
  • Free software neither dies nor becomes the next big thing because of Chrome OS
  • An improved version of Chrome OS coming out four months after the first device launches (note to Google: this time get the upgrade path right)
  • An increase in pay-as-you go applications and software-as-a-service
  • An increase in flying chairs in the Redmond area

So Google ChromeOS will change parts of the world. I'm not sure it will change too much by itself but it is another step on the road towards a more open (in sense of competition) market place. I'm not altogether sure that simply adding a.n.other large company who controls everything to the existing market is a good idea, but three is better place to be than two. Certainly Google's approach is a step closer to the free desktop we need than Microsoft's or Apple's.

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Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.