Chrome OS strives to replace desktop culture

The Chrome OS seems ideally suited for netbooks, but can it compete with Windows on desktops?

Google's Chrome OS is coming to a netbook near you sometime later this year. The Web-centric, Linux-based, open source platform will offer a lightweight, cost-effective alternative operating system for portable computing. Eventually, Google plans to expand the scope of Chrome OS to take on Windows on the desktop as well--a goal that requires both a solid operating system and a significant culture shift.

Chrome is essentially a Web browser as an operating system. A media player app will be included that will facilitate offline music play and photo viewing, but aside from that the platform is designed to operate exclusively in the cloud and take advantage of the vast portfolio of services from Google.

The operating system seems ideal for the netbook crowd, or possibly even as a platform for tablet devices to compete with Apple's iPad. Netbooks and tablets generally lack CD or DVD drives and the smaller hard drive sizes of the diminutive portable laptops seem geared for storing only the core OS components. An open source operating system that can reduce costs and make the hardware into more of instant-on, cloud-based device might be welcome among the netbook crowd.

The Chrome OS might also provide a solid alternative for a tablet OS. Apple has built the iPad on the iPhone mobile OS, HP is building the Hurricane on Palm's WebOS mobile OS, and the Dell Streak is built on Google's Android mobile OS. There is demand, though, for a tablet that is more like a desktop and less like a smartphone. It remains to be seen if Windows 7 can be nimble enough to satisfy in the tablet market, but the Chrome OS seems to comfortably straddle between mobile OS and desktop OS--a potentially ideal position for a tablet OS.

But, what of Google's aspirations to usurp the crown of desktop dominance from Microsoft? Assuming that the Chrome OS lives up to expectations and provides a polished, capable experience, there is still a long way to go before a Web-centric OS can even begin to replace the traditional desktop operating system (a.k.a. Windows).

Look, the Mac operating system has been available since 1984 and has only five percent of the OS market. Linux has been around since 1991--or 1994 if you want to start counting from the 1.0 release, yet Linux in all of its varieties has barely more than one percent of the operating system market. Can we really expect Chrome to knock Microsoft off its pedestal any time soon when two very capable operating systems have been barely able to scratch the surface after 20 years?

At its heart, Chrome is just another version of Linux. However, the Google brand carries a lot of consumer clout. It is respected. It is trusted. Businesses and consumers alike are much more likely to adopt a Linux variant with the Google stamp of approval, so it has that going for it. But, Apple is also respected, and trusted, and has a strong and loyal following...and five percent of the market.

Many small and medium businesses are already invested in Google. They rely on Gmail for messaging, Google Docs for office productivity, Google Voice for communicating, and Google Wave and/or Google Buzz for collaborating and social networking. Chrome will work nicely for them.

Many organizations, though, are reluctant to put that much faith in the cloud. There are availability and security concerns. Many companies will need to address the compliance issues associated with trusting personal information, and sensitive or confidential data to third-party providers such as Google. There are some hurdles to overcome before the desktop culture can be abandoned completely.

What Chrome needs in order to compete with, or replace Windows as the desktop standard is a complete culture shift. Chrome most likely won't be any more successful than Mac or Linux in fighting Windows on its own turf, but as the culture continues to evolve to a more mobile, more cloud-based model, it plays to Chrome's strengths and arguably puts Windows on the defensive to scramble and adapt.

You can follow Tony on his Facebook page, or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com. He also tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW.

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