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Chrome alone?

Has the moment passed already for Google Chrome OS? Linux User columnist Simon Brew examines the evidence...

This article originally appeared in issue 97 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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One of the most interesting projects announced last year, for my money at least, was Google Chrome OS. This was, as you probably know, Google’s signal of intent that it was going head first into the operating system market, having found a niche in which it figured it could make an impact.

Its thinking was smart, too. It targeted the then burgeoning netbook market, coming up with a fast, quick-booting operating system that stored everything you needed in the cloud. When it was first demonstrated, and Google showed a portable machine booting to a working desktop in under ten seconds, I wanted to get cracking with the OS right there and then.

But despite engaging with the open source community, and in spite of putting materials out there for people to tinker with, to date we’ve not even seen a proper beta build that we can take a look at. Instead, the operating system, which was first due before the end of 2010, is now set to turn up later in 2011. When? Good question. We’re told the delay is being measured in months, but that’s suitably vague.

The problem, however, and Google must know this, is that Chrome OS is increasingly looking like an opportunity missed. Google spotted a gap in the market and found a way to address people’s key frustrations with operating systems while incorporating cloud computing at the same time. A win, then. Only it seems as though Google might just be snatching defeat from the jaws of, if not victory, at least some semblance of success in getting people even more interesting in a Windows alternative. For that was the interesting battle here. Not that Google Chrome OS was going to bring something new to the Linux arena, rather that a massive company had decided to take on Windows.

But the window of opportunity has now surely been lost. Since Chrome OS was announced, the iPad has come in and seized control of the portable market. Well, if not control, then at least the initiative. And as such, netbooks are no longer the next big thing, or anything even close to that. Instead, netbooks are struggling. The market isn’t as interesting as it was. And Chrome OS suddenly looks like the operating system without a home.

Google is unlikely to be too bothered, given the inroads that it’s been making with the Android platform. And whether Chrome OS does eventually see the light of day or not, the work on it is unlikely to be wasted, as it’s inevitably going to end up in the Android codebase somewhere along the line.

But personally, I still want to see that battle. I still want to see a company make a concerted effort to take on Microsoft Windows, and the reality is that you need a big brand name to do that. I don’t want to see the baton passed from one big firm to another, I just want people in the mass market to at least see there’s an alternative out there. Then, if they choose Windows, so be it. At least they’ve made a decision.

Google, however, may have put that battle off, ironically by doing the thing that open source is rarely criticised for: simply taking too much time. As such, for now at least, the status quo remains very firmly in place.

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