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BW Businessworld

A Strategy In Chrome

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On the internet, the big G rules. and that's a situation Google wants to see continuing and improving way into the distant future. Accordingly, out it comes with an announcement of a work-in-progress cloud computing based operating system. With a minimal install on your hard drive, it gets your computer to work with Web applications — if you have one of those tiny convenient laptops called a Netbook, that is. In time, Chrome OS will move to bigger devices too.

Some people are saying "Aw, poor Microsoft" and worrying about the death of Windows and Mac OS X, because Google gobbled up search, mail, browsers, office Web applications, mobile OSs, and now is after operating systems. But Microsoft and Apple weren't born yesterday either, and nor were users. So don't reach for those tissues just yet. The Chrome OS concept is probably more strategic than market-sweeping. It is believed that Google wants to get Microsoft and Apple to build in more Web applications, thereby, getting users to be more Web-dependent. Google says existing operating systems were built when there was no Web. And now that many people practically live online, OSs need rethinking

Meanwhile, Google's announcement and blog post stirred up much debate and opinion; people tried to figure out what Chrome OS would look like. "Who knows what this thing is," Microsoft's Steve Ballmer said to tech writer, Joseph Tartakoff. Not much is known about the specifics of Chrome OS from the user's point of view. But there are some keywords that are being used to describe it. Or that Google is using to describe its future system in the official blog.

The first of these is simplicity — something that has always worked for Google and which it will always push.  Clean, unconfusing and easy to interact with. As a matter of fact, the user isn't expected to have to interact much with the minimalist operating system at all. It will be more like a gateway to everything you need, online.

Chrome OS will also be safe, says Google. It is based on the Linux kernel, so that is your first secure layer because it has been shown to be less vulnerable. Whatever is built on this is to be virus free. "It should just work," promises Google. Users will be free from malware, phishing and other cyber-worries. Privacy will at least be no worse than it is right now when you browse on Firefox, they say.

The other buzzword for Chrome OS is speed. The new lightweight operating system will work with whatever is based on the internet, so time to start up and get going as quick as possible. No waiting for a bunch of programs to load up and log in. No updates and patches to install. Google's browser, Chrome, will go beyond browserhood to become Chrome OS and interface between machine and applications online. Of course, by the time the OS comes around and I have a system it works on, I hope the internet service provider I'm stuck with will long since have lost itself in some oblivion from where it can't be retrieved. Something supersonic in its place would greatly help.

Google Chrome OS will be open source, and developers will be free to do what developers do as long as the Web is the platform. Google's Chrome OS may sound simple enough, but exactly why it is even needed isn't quite clear. There are enough operating systems out there, and Google itself has Android that can run on Netbooks. Google agrees that there are overlaps between the two, but says Android will focus more on small devices, Chrome OS on larger devices, and some overlap between the two on Netbooks, giving OEMs and users more choice for customisation and computing styles.

Google already has another operating system called gOS that is based on Ubuntu 8.04.1, and installed on Netbooks' hard drive from where it can use Web applications like Google Gadgets. It comes with Firefox, Skype and Open Office installed. But this has not been created by Google and the ‘g' doesn't stand for Google but for good. Though it shares a lot with what seems to be planned for Chrome OS, Google probably has much beyond gOS in mind.

One can't readily predict the Web landscape a whole year or more in advance, but let us not take the immediate end of other operating systems for granted. In the longer term, though, everything is headed Web-ward, and any software that wants to thrive, not just survive, will need to evolve. So, many people are also predicting that Google's Chrome OS will eventually manage to free Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 17-08-2009)