The news from Google yesterday evening hit like a bombshell. Google is launching an operating system, called Chrome OS (like its web browser). According to the press release, the system will be shipping on Netbooks in the second half of next year. As is to be expected, the operating system will be open source. Chrome OS will be built on top of a Linux kernel, and will "use its own windowing system", which most likely means that X windows - the standard for decades on UNIX platforms - will not be used.
As technology evolves, it sometimes makes sense to draw a line under what has been done so far, and start anew from scratch. Lessons learnt - especially the bad experience - from the previous technological generation can then be applied to build the new system from the ground up. When this is done right, the result can prove to be transformative - leading to those "paradigm shifts" that really allows us to reach a new era of productivity, efficiency and enable us to do completely new things that we had never been able to do before.
Google has one big advantage: there is not much "legacy stuff" that needs to be carried through. Instead, Google can focus on what it thinks is most important: a light-weight, free and open operating system that is designed for tomorrow's (or actually next year's) users.
This announcement puts the heat on Microsoft, the leading provider of operating systems in the world, and also on Apple - in second place (albeit with a wide margin of difference) in popularity for desktop systems. Under pressure to deliver better versions of their operating system, Microsoft is betting heavily on its new Windows 7 that is expected to hit the streets roughly at the same time as Google's new Chrome operating system.
Microsoft's Windows operating systems are the de-facto standard for user operating systems (i.e. systems running on laptops and desktops, as opposed to operating systems running on servers). In fact, many users have had very little choice over this matter, as it is was very difficult to buy a home computer or consumer laptop that did not come with Windows bundled and pre-installed. In fact, the only other choice for consumers was to buy an Apple computer with MacOS - for a sizeable price difference.
Nowadays, Netbooks are gaining popularity: small ultraportable and inexpensive notebooks with reduced footprint that are designed to access the Internet and carry out common tasks such as editing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Although Windows comes preinstalled on many of these Netbooks, it is possible to find Netbooks sold in consumer outlets running other operating systems, most notably versions of Linux. The price point may have been a factor for this "softening up" of the Windows de-facto monopoly - after all, Linux distributions can be bundled for free by equipment manufacturers, and are very mature by offering solid desktop applications that perform well, interoperate with Microsoft Office. Apple is not expected to gain any significant foothold in this market - the price point advantage of Netbooks will be difficult to fit into Apple's business model as we know it today.
What about the technology, and the possible "paradigm shifts"? Windows is plagued by viruses and malware, and a solution to that problem is not in sight. Some specialists believe that the "quick fixes" in the form of anti-viruses, malware scanners and new "user account control" features are no real solution - that the very nature of the Windows core makes it a fertile ground for hackers. In that sense, building a new operating system from the ground makes sense - designed to be much less vulnerable to catching malware, and optimised for a mobile Internet experience. Google's press release says it out loud: today's operating systems were designed in an era when there was no web. A new operating system can be built with the Internet and new cloud paradigms in mind.
Will Google succeed? That will be an interesting question, and a tide of comments on that is just around the corner. There are several factors however that are bound to have an influence. For one, the openness of the operating system. This has been a positive factor for the uptake of UNIX and Linux-based systems in the past. Apple clearly does not believe in an open platform, and prefers to keep its users locked in a sandbox, as shown with the iPhone. Microsoft has been opening up to some extent by being more collaborative with standards, but it is definitely not an open source company. Another factor will be the technology, with Google having a clear advantage of having the luxury of doing things right from the (new) start. Third, Google's popularity and innovative drive that has blessed it with a massive loyal user community that other companies are finding very difficult to poach, even though they are trying very hard.