Chrome OS: the browser as operating system

8 July, 2009

Widely predicted for some time, and now official: Google is to produce its own operating system, Chrome OS. Google describe this modestly as an “attempt to re-think what operating systems should be” in a world of cloud computing and web applications.

On a “traditional” operating system, the browser is just one application among many. In Chrome OS, the browser will be the main interface, with applications being run through the browser as web applications. As Google put it:

For application developers, the web is the platform. All web-based applications will automatically work and new applications can be written using your favorite web technologies. And of course, these apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux thereby giving developers the largest user base of any platform.

Is this a “Windows killer”, as some have predicted? The focus on web applications and netbooks suggests otherwise. It sounds like Google  is aiming at providing an alternative experience for those who want access to web-based applications while on the move, and who will probably continue to have Windows running on their main PCs.

I wonder if versions produced for larger PCs will be designed for “dual booting”, so that people can turn their computer on within a few seconds to access the web using Chrome OS, and then boot into Windows for more substantial work requiring conventional, installed software such as Microsoft Office. Chrome OS is built on an underlying Linux platform and – however much it may frustrate those who, like this writer, use Linux quite happily for their everyday computing – most consumers have proven stubbornly resistant to using non-Windows OSes on their PCs, to an extent which even Google may struggle to overcome. Presenting Chrome OS as quick-to-use alternative sitting alongside Windows may be an easier sell.

What Chrome OS does illustrate is how relatively unimportant operating systems are becoming in a cloud computing era. Google clearly sees the OS not as an important revenue-generator in itself, but as a means to increasing use of its revenue-generating services online. As Google put it:

any time our users have a better computing experience, Google benefits as well by having happier users who are more likely to spend time on the Internet [looking at Google advertising, as they might have added].

Chrome OS will accelerate the trend towards our computing experience being conducted through our web browsers, regardless of the operating system.

It will also no doubt increase the scrutiny of Google from privacy regulators and competition authorities in the US, Europe and elsewhere. The Department of Justice in the US is already investigating Google’s deal with book publishers, and Microsoft will no doubt be asking the European Commission why it is wrong for Microsoft to bundle a web browser with its operating system, but OK for Google to bundle an operating system with its web browser.