Clearly, then, this is awful news for Microsoft. For not only does it explicitly gain Google as a rival in the desktop space, it does so in a way that relegates the operating system to the role of plumbing – effectively dismissing Microsoft's core products as sideshows.
Instead, the focus moves to the browser, one of the areas where Microsoft has not only lost the initiative, bit is also steadily losing market share.
What about for free software? At one level, it represents something of a problem for end-user distros like Ubuntu. Google is obviously such a powerful brand that it will attract many users to its new open source platform. But it's important to note that Google explicitly says:
Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the web
That's clearly a huge market, but it's not all of it. There are lots of reasons *not* to use the Web – notably security, privacy and control – and GNU/Linux distros will always serve an important purpose.
But it's probably true that this move places an upper limit on the number of people likely to switch to them: in the future, many people will use open source but be unaware of it (just as they do today with Google's Web apps, most of which run on open source server-side.)
But looking at the bigger picture, this is really good news for open source. As Google emphasises:
We have a lot of work to do, and we're definitely going to need a lot of help from the open source community to accomplish this vision.
This is very much an open source project from Google. And note that unlike its Web services, this software will be *distributed*, so the GNU GPL will kick in, and Google will be obliged to release the source. This means that lots of new code will be entering the free software commons.
Moreover, Google's commitment to open source has just been raised a notch, and so we are likely to see collateral benefits as Google spreads more of its largesses to other open source projects in order to boost the ecosystem as a whole.
This move is obviously a watershed for the operating systems market, but I think it may also prove to be a real milestone for open source too. There may well be some negative consequences for current GNU/Linux distros and related projects, but these will evolve, as open source always evolves, and those most fit to survive in the new environment will do so.
Overall, though, we now have Google pushing not one, but *two* operating system based on Linux – Android being the other. Add in all the other companies that will be jumping on this new bandwagon, and you have an unprecedented momentum behind free software in this sector. 2010, the Year of the GNU/Linux desktop, anyone?