Google have announced that Chrome OS, its new operating system will launch next year.. the geeks are celebrating and declaring Microsoft’s reign over. But what does it mean for the mainstream?
To most people a computer is a computer.. or possibly a Mac. Ask them what browser they use or even what operating system they use and they will either look at you blankly or mumble something about Windows. They almost certainly will not know the version running. Google themselves showed this when they asked the public “What is a browser?” in this video:
Given this, it is not difficult to see why Firefox took so long to get to where it is today (slow adoption gradually accelerating faster and faster). The reason for this is that the mainstream really don’t care. Internet Explorer works for them. It is only when they come into contact with other Firefox users who expound the benefits (security; speed; addons etc) that they start using it. Chrome has experienced minimal growth since its launch and lets face it; installing a browser is not exactly difficult. Installing an OS – forget it. Even word of mouth is not going to accelerate that change.
But what about newly purchased computers?
Google have said they are going to target netbooks, a rapidly growing segment which has people complaining in droves because they believe they are “cheap portable laptops” and therefore are not meeting their expectations. This is a good place to start if they can meet those already high expectations. Of course, other Linux based netbooks have had a much larger return rate than Windows based ones.
According to Google, “..the operating systems that browsers run on were designed in an era where there was no web.”
Let’s take that at face value and assume we are talking about an interface that is browser-like in nature. If we also assume that the major way people are going to obtain Chrome OS is through the purchase of a new computer, then the success of the OS over the long term is going to be determined by how comfortable the public are post purchase.
Can a “browser” be the operating system? Let’s look at the various types of software people use computers for:
Back when Windows 3.0 launched, networking was a nightmare. You followed the steps and still it didn’t always work. Thankfully today, Windows does networking really well. Back then the idea of channeling all communications through the internet was a pipedream. Today, there is email, instant messaging, VOIP, video conferencing, rss, blogs, twitter, social networks. Communication is an important reason to buy a computer today, though over time this diminishes as mobile phones become the major form factor. Of course other new forms of communication will be developed which at first will only work on more powerful computers.
All of these are online experiences. You have to be connected to take advantage of them. Today you have a choice of either using applications like Outlook or Skype or using online websites like Windows Live Mail for email or Meebo for instant messaging. Google Wave is also looking like it might revolutionise the online communication space next year though don’t expect this to hit the mainstream for a few years yet.
What do most people use? For email the big players are mostly webmail providers (Yahoo and Hotmail) though Outlook is still the second biggest overall for consumers. See a full breakdown of email client statistics here. Google themselves accept people want to be able to access their emails offline and you can now do this transparently to the user if you use the Chrome browser.
With most of the tools people use being online already, having Chrome OS as your base operating system is not going to upset the mainstream.
Office type software
There has been plenty of discussion online about how great Google Docs is (and its competitors). The tools are still rather basic in my view. It certainly does not have plenty of the functionality of Microsoft Office but even Microsoft knows it needs to bring Microsoft Office package online. I am not sure when it is due to arrive mind.
There are plenty of questions for me here. For everyday mainstream usage, online tools are fine but I am yet to be convinced that the odd occurance when you need to work on that big spreadsheet from work is very efficient through the cloud. I am too worried about it not syncing completely or the time taken to download. Things like this need to be made seamless to the everyday user. There is very good reason why so many companies talk about the experience of “now”.
One of the biggest reasons people upgrade/buy computers is to play the latest games. It is a common myth that PC gaming is in an irreversible decline whilist consoles are reigning supreme. This report shows the PC gaming market is worth $11bn worldwide, albeit with more and more PC games distributed digitally or played online. Platforms like Otoy are also going to allow you to stream HD quality gaming directly through your browser.
In 2010, Chrome OS is being targeted at netbooks, which are not exactly designed for gaming so today it is rather a mute point. Windows wins hands down but given Otoy even gaming could fit within Google’s mantra of everything in the cloud.
From the mainstream perspective though, this also means one click and play – an experience similar to consoles. No more extra steps of installing first before being able to play. In other words, over time the reason to choose Windows for gaming diminishes.
The launch of Chrome OS actually blurs the lines between an offline app-centric world and Google’s online everything in the cloud. Whilst Microsoft moves from offline to being more connected. Google is moving the other way, accepting that local cached versions are needed. Googles web applications for Chrome OS will look like normal applications, internet programming has reached the stage where they can be competitive with offline apps. The mainstream user does not care who is coming from what direction and as long as the application meets their aspirational needs and the experience is seemless they will use it.
So does this mean the death knell for Windows 7? No. Windows 8 possibly. It is certainly a warning to Microsoft, but lets not forget they are finally catching on to the threat of cloud based services. Just yesterday, Microsoft researcher, Helen Wang talked about Microsoft Gazelle – a new type of browser that acts more like Windows. You could spin that as being a new type of operating system that sits on top of a Windows kernel
All in all, this is the start of a shift that many have been predicting. Google has built an ecosystem similar in some ways to the ecosystem that Microsoft created amongst the geeks of the world. The big difference is Microsoft was able to move from a majority amongst geeks to a majority globally. Can Google do the same?
Chrome the browser looks to have been only the starting point for Google’s desire to control the Internet experience.
Will Chrome OS turn Google into Microsoft?