Google Chrome: Does the world need another OS?

When Google first launched its Chrome Web browser, many saw it as the company's extension of an operating system. Now, that prophecy is fulfilled with news of Google's plans to make the code open source.

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But immediately, this raises fundamental questions about what exactly defines an operating system, and what will distinguish Android, the open source mobile OS spearheaded by Google, from Chrome OS.

I can't help but wonder if we'll look back on this news and think of it as the start of the next Great OS Wars. Google says its goal is to improve the user experience with computers, and clearly that's possible given the laundry list of annoyances with today's PC-based experience.

Mobile is driving innovation, too: The iPhone, Android, and WebOS mobile OS experiences have already shown us the potential when hardware integrates with elegant and well-designed software.

While Microsoft Windows has competition in Apple's Mac OSX and Linux, the truth is that Windows has really been competing against itself. Sure, Mac OS X's evolution has put pressure on Microsoft, but PC users have routinely turned to either Windows XP or Windows Vista (reviled though it may be) for their computing needs.

Consider the netbook world: Mediocre Linux distributions installed on early netbooks had difficulty selling, because shoppers wanted the Windows environment on their netbook, not some merely functional, Linux-based Windows wannabe.

Fast forward to the introduction of Android. The Linux-based Android debuted just a few months after Apple introduced its sharp iPhone OS 2.0 with App Store support.

And mobile OSes have been the hot topic ever since: When we most recently examined the mobile OS landscape, we noted that Apple's iPhone OS 3.0 edged out Palm's WebOS and Google's Android--for now. It gained points for its smooth interface, ease of use, and its wide application support.

Palm's WebOS also gets bonus points for its interface and strong ties into Web-based services, including Google's own calendar and e-mail.

And Android gets plenty of attention, too: Its pretty-face design (though, WebOS and iPhone are prettier still) and interface makes it highly competitive with WebOS and iPhone OS 3.0, and its connectivity and integration with Google's Web services (calendar and e-mail, but not Google Docs) made me take notice when I reviewed the first Android phone to hit the market last fall, the T-Mobile G1.

The key thing to remember is that even though these mobile operating systems are tied tightly with their handset hardware, they are not necessarily limited to smart phone handsets. Rumors of a Google operating system based on Android have been circulating for a while now, and already we've seen reports of planned netbooks that will run Android (Acer's Aspire One is due in the fall).

In fact, smart phones are nothing more than low-powered, highly portable computers, often running ARM or similar processors--the same processors found in so-called smartbooks, and soon to be found in some netbooks, perhaps, as well.

The idea of an Android-based netbook OS is not new then, and makes the news of Google Chrome all the more unsurprising. However, why Android?

What's to stop WebOS for making a go of it on a larger, more powerful device than the Palm Pre? Why wouldn't Apple pipe its iPhone OS 3.0 (based on the same kernel as Mac OS X) to a tablet or other portable device? Thus far, the sort of Google-to-Web integration we've seen from Android on smart phones, and from Chrome on the PC, just hasn't seemed all that unique.

For example, the current Chrome browser for Windows gives some insight into the blurring lines between desktop and Web browser. Chrome lets you create shortcuts on your Windows PC to any Web page or Web application, for example (this feature is not yet available in the Mac version of Chrome). When Chrome first came out, this felt fresh. Now, however, I'm less impressed--Apple's iPhone OS 3.0 lets me do that, too, on my iPhone 3GS.

Chrome OS vs. Current Options

Before I can understand the value of a Google-owned, Chrome-based operating system, I'd have to understand what it offers to me as a user that will be different from any of the options available to me today. In Google's blog posting announcing Chrome OS, the company notes "Google Chrome OS is a new project, separate from Android. 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."

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