Analysts Mixed On Chrome OS Impact On Windows

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Analysts say they need to see more of the Linux-based Chrome OS before they believe it will eventually prove disruptive to Windows

Google on Wednesday formally unveiled its entry into the computer operating (OS) system software market with the Google Chrome OS, a lightweight OS that will run on top of a Linux kernel to power web applications.

The move, announced casually by Google the evening of 7 July in a blog post by Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management, and Linus Upson, engineering director, is Google’s most direct assault to date on Microsoft Windows, which has ruled the desktop OS market for several years.

While Microsoft has locked up the traditional market for desktop platforms thanks to deals with Dell, HP and myriad other PC makers, Chrome OS is initially geared for netbooks, a nascent but fast-growing computer niche in which Windows and Linux distributions joust for supremacy.

Netbooks are small laptops designed to let consumers surf the internet and use web services, including search, social networking, webmail, multimedia and a number of other applications.

Google offers these web services and more. Google, which in September 2008 released a Chrome web browserfor speedy web surfing, sees Chrome OS as a platform for its web services, including Google search, the Gmail email application, the Google Docs collaboration applications and Google Maps.

The platform joins Google search, Chrome and Google’s open-source mobile OS Android as Google’s latest effort to enable consumers and workers to access the internet via desktops, netbooks, mobile phones and set-top boxes.

“Google wants to distinguish Android from Chrome OS, as Pichai and Upson noted in their post:“Android was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks.

“Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the web, and is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems. While there are areas where Google Chrome OS and Android overlap, we believe choice will drive innovation for the benefit of everyone, including Google.”

Whereas Windows boosts the price of every computer it comes installed on, Chrome OS is open source, so it shouldn’t drive up the cost of the machines it powers, potentially providing a more attractive alternative to Windows-based computers.

If web search was the ‘lingua franca’ of the web, Chrome OS will be the mobile home for users’ machines, supporting web applications with more ease and comfort than Windows, but also more speed and efficiency.

Today, news of Chrome OS continues to capture attention at TechMeme, as bloggers and journalists weigh in with gusto and proclamations that the platform could be a Windows killer. High-tech analysts free from jaundiced eyes have taken a more sober view of a product designed to challenge Microsoft Windows’ 95 percent desktop operating system market share with an untested platform that won’t appear in netbooks until late 2010.

Broadpoint AmTech analyst Ben Schachter said in a research note yesterday he expects no revenue impact on Google until at least 2011.

“We expect the economics for the Chrome OS may be similar to those of Android: GOOG offers the operating system to the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] for free, with various versions placing some requirements on the OEM, depending on whether the OEM wants to install key Google applications such as Google Search boxes, Gmail, Google Calendar, etc,” Schachter wrote.

Farther out, he said he expects Google Chrome OS to be tightly integrated with Google’s search and web services and that it may lure to more small and midsize businesses to move toward an enterprise software solution in “the cloud” and away from Microsoft Windows.

Even so, IDC analyst Al Gillen downplayed the news in a phone interview, noting that consumers don’t think about operating systems when they go to buy computers. “From my point of view, this is nothing more than a shot that Google is firing at Microsoft. This is one bullet of many that they will fire. They have a long ways to go with what they announced.”

However, Gillen allowed that the platform could help buoy Linux as an alternative to Windows if Google packages Chrome OS as a Linux distribution. It is unclear from Google’s paucity of details about the product whether that will be the case.

Yankee Group analyst Joshua Martin said Chrome OS will not be a Windows killer. He predicted that the biggest winner will be Apple, which will reap the rewards of a slugging match between Google and Microsoft in the netbook and mobile spaces.

Martin, who like Gillen likes the guns and bullets metaphor, wrote: “The Chrome OS isn’t the final bullet in the war between Google and Microsoft, rather it’s merely a shot across the bow. Google’s targeting of netbooks will reduce Window’s market share of this high growth category, but the effect will only be slightly greater than the introduction of Linux-based netbooks. But what’s really hurting Google’s ambitions is its inability to build a brand ecosystem.

“And that’s where Apple is aided, with the rumour that they are to offer a netbook-like device using its iPhone OS in the near future – such a product will add further value to consumers who could potentially buy applications and use them on all their Apple devices. With the announcement of the Chrome OS, Google has missed the chance to weave a consistent story for consumers,” he said.

Enderle Group analyst, Rob Enderle has a similar view about Google’s weak marketing prowess. Google, he said, announced Chrome OS midweek with little fanfare because it was losing control of the marketing message.

For example, he noted that computer makers such as Acer and phone makers such as Nokia have already discussed offering a netbook based on Android. But Android was designed for mobile devices, so pundits quickly figured out that there was another, bigger OS at play. “Marketing is Google’s biggest weakness,” Enderle said.

Despite the marketing miscue, he said he also sees Chrome OS signalling a profound shift in the way users do computing at home and in the office: away from the tethered desktop OS and into the cloud. Drawing on another Apple comparison, Chrome OS could have as much impact as what Apple did with Mac OS X for the Unix space, Enderle said in a phone interview.

“Google has really thought through what it will take to be disruptive,” Enderle said, noting that Chrome OS leverages the same code base as Android. “While the offering might seem like a “poor man’s version of Linux, I think the experience will be much closer to [smartphones like] an [Apple] iPhone or a [T-Mobile] G1 than current Windows machines, connecting users directly to an applications store.”