What is Google’s Goal with its Chrome OS?

amcpherson's picture

The technology pundit-sphere is in fine form the last two days with the sneak announcement of Google’s Chrome OS, a stripped down operating system that will contain the Linux kernel, a new windowing system developed by Google and the Chrome browser, among other components. Chrome hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm, but still there are very few companies with the brand, reach and resources to rival Google, so when they decide to enter the desktop/netbook OS market, enlightened bloggers (and the financial markets no less) pay attention. With all the speculation — and keep in mind it’s all speculation since this is the first Google product I can remember that was pre-announced — many questions have been raised, most notably, just what is Google’s aim in building another OS? Why wouldn’t they just leave that nasty business to Microsoft, Apple and existing Linux distribution vendors?

Some have said Google wants to do this in order to beat Microsoft, that it has become obsessed in challenging the great evil to the north, and will stop at nothing to bring it to its knees. While Eric Schmidt did once work at Sun, he’s no Scott McNealy. And while there are competitive issues I will discuss later, Google main motivation in every single thing it does is to put more and more people online, all the time, to view their ads and to make use of their applications (thus seeing more of their ads).

Why do they need a new OS to do this? In an amusing post, Fake Steve Job (Dan Lyons) asks when was the last time you didn’t go online because your browser experience was bad — never. But he’s missing the point. He’s thinking of computing and browsing today, from a very privileged position. I believe Microsoft is hindering the computing market and its growth beyond desktop/notebooks in the developed world. Google wants to see multiple devices connected to the web in every household. A web device in your pocket, one on your wrist, in your car, on your boat and in every room of your house; not to mention computers in homes in the developing world. The Microsoft tax ($50 per unit for instance) has hindered the market adoption of these types of devices. If manufacturers do not have to pay that tax, more devices with web connectivity will be purchased in more parts of the world, increasing web traffic and the amount of minutes spent searching and viewing ads.

And that’s just consumer devices. Think about an army of connected doctors in a post-Obama world who open their small, instant-on, instantly-connected tablets to enter information into an online medical record system. Just think about the ad revenue from the drug companies on that one.  Many healthcare companies could not afford $800 PCs with Windows 7 for every doctor, and why would they need it? Just what is the advantage in a full-featured, bloated OS and a native desktop app, one that has to be installed, maintained and secured by an IT staff?

Price isn’t the only hindrance: boot time is another serious problem caused by bloated Microsoft OSes on these devices. If it’s always on, and always connected I will use my device more, search more and view more ads. As Stephen O’Grady says, Google focused on speed with its search technology, and many see Chrome as the next stage in that evolution.

Let’s not forget that Google makes money on more than just ads. If they control the OS and browser it will be more tightly integrated into their services, which can include pay services apart from search/ad revenue. (Just think how easy it will be for Google to offer an Amazon-like data backup plan from one of their devices. Then again, what data will be native?) Or how nice it would be if they didn’t have to be reliant on Mozilla (while paying them millions per year) in reaching people through alternative browsers?

I think Google’s Native Application Project will be a key part of this OS. What this means is that I can run certain native applications just as easily through my browser on Linux and x86 as I can on Windows or Mac and x86, and that I can make use of more of the computing power of the device than through the normal app/browser paradigms of today. The result is a dramatically lessening in Window’s advantage that it earned through its dominant position. Most people use Windows because applications and peripherals work well with it. It’s a chicken and egg problem: the barrier for a new comer like Linux has been the lack of an application ecosystem to support it, yet application vendors don’t want to support it until it has the numbers necessary to make it a successful business. Google wants to make the browser the platform but realizes the limitations of javascript applications connecting to a server. The Google Native Application Project will cut out the advantages (speed and power) of native applications today, and should grow the stable of applications for Chrome, and every other Web browser who makes use of this technology. Again, less of a reliance on Microsoft thus equally more devices in the marketplace that connect to the Web. (Also, to be clear: Google will make use of all the drivers presently available in Linux since they are using the kernel.)

There may be another, more nefarious, motivation behind Chrome OS. Microsoft has two cash cows: Windows and Office. Their other businesses make little money compared (or actually lose money). The more cash Microsoft has, the more it can challenge Google’s cash cows. Bing anyone? Pre-announcing a netbook OS that could have enterprise desktop potential just when Microsoft is trying to finalize contracts with hardware manufacturers might have an effect on those contracts. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it is interesting that Google has entered the world of vapor-ware (or blog-ware as John Fontana put it) for the first time with this announcement. Google is too smart to discount Microsoft as a competitor, even in areas they have historically struggled with. Google doesn’t have a monopoly on smart people.

All of this is speculation since we have one blog post from Google to go on, but regardless it is good to see more competition, especially when that competition is using Linux.