Chrome OS: The Return of the 'Free' PC? Doubtful


I have trouble keeping track of how Google plans to change my life this month, but clearly this Google Chrome OS news is big, like Google Wave big from a few weeks back.


OK, enough sarcasm.


What I have been able to gather so far is that the Chrome OS is aptly named, because what it actually is is a pre-installed skin of somebody's Linux distro (details unknown at this point) that essentially uses the Chrome browser as its interface. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols at Computerworld says sources tell him the "desktop" will be practically invisible. The OS will be "light," which is code for not designed to handle a ton of intensive processing locally.


The linchpin here, it appears, is OS-level integration of Google Gears, the very interesting but to-date slowly adopted tech that allows cloud-based apps to run offline and synch with the "true" snapshot of your data when a connection is re-established. (Here's an interesting blog post about the announcement of Gears for Gmail from earlier this year.)


Of course, Google is essentially synonymous with "cloud," and owns a slew of cloud apps, including its market-devouring search platform. I certainly have no inside knowledge here, but I'll be surprised if the Chrome OS does not boot directly to a simple page that looks a lot like iGoogle, with a big ol' search box right there in the middle. I also will be darn surprised if it comes pre-installed with OpenOffice.org or any of the client-side tools commonly associated with alternate OSes.


So, we have a cloud services provider announcing that it is launching an OS that -- and of course this is speculation on my part -- is going to strongly promote that service provider's services.


Which leads me to ask -- will you be able to select a Web browser other than Chrome when you initialize the Chrome OS? <strong>I</strong><strong>t seems a lot of folks -- including Google's partner Mozilla -- think that's pretty important, at least where Windows is concerned</strong>.


Part of the vision of the cloud, at least as I've understood it, is that the OS basically becomes irrelevant, or at the very least an appliance. Users pick their tools, data services and nifty gadgets from vendors who compete on a level playing field of open standards and any old Web browser.


Bad for companies like Microsoft, which unquestionably uses its ownership of the desktop to push its other products, and which has no interest in its decidedly not "thin" OS (and associated maintenance revenue) being replaced by a commodity. Robin Harris at ZDNet runs through some economics on the netbook side of the equation -- I'd disagree with Mr. Harris that $5 for an OS license is inherently a problem on a 99-cent netbook; that all depends on how much services revenue the provider underwriting that netbook stands to make on the deal. But clearly Redmond's worst nightmare is the desktop OS becoming a loss-leader.


The worst nightmare for a company that distributes an OS as a loss-leader is having a regulatory body coming in and telling it that it has to abandon its "leader" due to competition issues.


Chrome OS is being discussed mostly in the context of netbooks, and of course that makes perfect sense, not only because netbooks are a logical technical fit for a "thin" OS, but also because they are heading toward a smartphone economic model. And the competition issues that seem to badger Microsoft at the desktop don't seem to be a big point of concern for the iPhone, Pre and other pocket-sized computers that come with a contract up front by which users wave off all that open competing stuff.


There was a push about a decade ago for next-to-free PCs bundled with ISP services contracts. It will be interesting to see if Google can extend that model to the corporate or even consumer desktop markets (I'd guess, "no") or if Chrome OS will stay in the device categories already being underwritten by service providers.