Google has announced its new Chrome operating system. Yay.
I was tempted to stop there, because there's actually very little we can say, at this point, about Google's announcement. The temptation to speculate, prognosticate, and extrapolate is powerful, to be true, but it's worth taking stock of the unknowns before we say much more.
Netbooks may be both an opportunity and a limitation
Google is right to see the rise of netbooks as a springboard for its browser-based OS. Certainly, netbooks are the one part of the PC market that's seeing growth. However, not every consumer who already has a laptop will necessarily buy a netbook. Corporate IT department are not rushing to buy employees a duplicate or replacement computer, just because netbooks are new, useful, or inexpensive.
In truth, a netbook is not a perfect replacement for a PC. As my Forrester colleague J.P. Gownder puts it, netbooks are a different form factor, which addresses a particular set of needs. There are other needs that a netbook won't meet. A netbook is perfect for my mom, but I couldn't see doing my old job (PM) or my new one (analyst) with one.
Yeah, yeah, I know, the Chrome OS is not predicated on netbooks alone. Since a lot of the "five minutes after the game" quarterbacking focuses on netbooks, I had to say something.
The Chrome OS depends on Chrome
The bigger dependence, of course, is the Chrome browser, which isn't exactly taking the browser market by storm right now. The Chrome OS may add to the reasons to use the Chrome browser, but that doesn't automatically mean that users will be convinced by those reasons, or even understand them. Which, of course, makes pronouncements about the death of the traditional operating system a wee bit premature.
Not all users may be overjoyed with this strategy
Google certainly has gained a lot of users for their productivity applications. However, they still lag far behind Microsoft Office in number of users. The reasons are many, and pretty obvious: My company isn't comfortable with sensitive data outside the firewall. We long ago standardized on Office, so don't ask me to certify a new set of tools from scratch. Google Apps doesn't do [insert feature], and that's a piece of functionality that's important for me. And so on.
Inherently, some desktop applications are more "displaceable" than others. It's going to take a while to see how many users will abandon their desktop applications users for Chrome-based alternatives.
Not all governments may be overjoyed with this strategy
Hey, does anyone else remember the Microsoft anti-trust battle? The one based on the assumption that it's a bad idea to let a vendor that's in the operating system business develop applications that are tied too closely to that OS?
Google is moving in the opposite direction than the path Microsoft took, starting with the application, from the applications to the operating system. However, the same concerns apply, with an added twist: how much user data Google maintains, and what they do with it.
Sometimes, the phrase "Google product strategy" can be an oxymoron
Google's "idea factory" approach to its product portfolio has its pros and cons. On the pro side, a smart, dedicated, energetic team can pull together an interesting new application or platform technology rapidly. Google employees have the freedom to explore new ideas, so invention does not always have to wait on the rest of the organization.
However, this approach doesn't make it easy, or perhaps even possible, to have an overarching product strategy. For example, the fit between Wave and other Google products is not altogether clear. (Particularly since many product groups didn't have any idea what Wave was, until the public announcement.) If the success of the Chrome OS depends on some constellation of applications, and there are gaps in Google's offering, how quickly will Google fill them? Or even realize that the gaps exist?
Where does the Chrome OS fit into the bigger world of cloud computing?
Complementing these questions about the relationship between the ChromeOS and the desktop, there's another set of questions, yet unresolved, about where Google fits into the evolving world of cloud computing. Does Chrome mean that Google is locking itself into an increasingly exclusive cloud strategy? Is it going to throw a lot of effort into recruiting other vendors to write Chrome-based applications? (You can ask that last question about both the desktop and cloud vendors.)
Serious technical challenges lay ahead
The browser-based OS is a new frontier frought with many interest technical challenges. Even with its impressive collective brainpower, Google won't solve them overnight.
And these are only the off-the-top-of-your-head questions. I'm sure that new ones will emerge.
Believe me, I'm not trying to be a wet blanket here. Google may very well succeed, and it may be a good thing for the industry that it does. However, it's way too early to conclude that either Chrome or traditional operating systems will "win," or if it's even an either/or question.