Why ChromeOS still matters

November 23, 2010, 8:31 AM UTC

The web-based OS can still be a winner for Google if it can execute.

The word on the street today (and last week)  is that Google’s ChromeOS is delayed, or rather that devices running the new web-based OS aren’t due until 2011.  Google went on record in May saying there would be “devices” later this “fall”.

“We are working on bringing the device later this fall,” said Google vice-president of product management Sundar Pichai at CompuTex Taipei, Asia’s biggest IT trade show.

Google told us last week that there would be a ChromeOS announcement in the coming weeks, but unless they bring a public product to share, they’ve missed their deadline.

Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet says as much:

I had a chance to ask the Googlers about Chrome OS  recently, and was told that a preview version of Google OS is still going to hit this year and be available in test form on several new form factors.

It sounds like ChromeOS is going to be late, and with tablets taking so much netbook share, is it worth even building?

There is still a significant market in the desktop/laptop OS space.  Have a look at where Microsoft (GOOG), still the world’s biggest software company, sees revenue growth this year:

In 2010, almost every little bit of that $4B growth was in its Windows/Cloud.  That growing space is the exact market Google is after with ChromeOS.

Windows units aren’t shrinking, they are just not growing as fast as Apple’s iPad. Speaking of the world’s largest technology company…

Apple (AAPL) just released its new MacBook Air with lower (for Apple) price points.  The ultra-portable laptops are fast, they have SSD Drives, no optical disc and they tout an almost instant-on power saving mode.  There aren’t any hard numbers but I get a general sense that they are flying off the shelves.

During the MacBook Air announcement, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that the Air was the future of MacBooks.  Indeed Apple’s own literature says they are the “Next Generation of MacBooks”.

This popular MacBook Air is the exact type of device that ChromeOS is aimed at powering.  It wouldn’t even surprise me to see Google Engineers running their ChromeOS on the MacBook Air, especially as Google has a thing for Apple laptops.

While I think that tablets and smartphones will continue to grow at a stong pace over the next few years and become significantly more functional, there is still a need for data entry and content creation, which favors the keyboard and screen model much more than the multi-touch display. With Apple and Microsoft both still making big moves in the desktop OS space, there is plenty of market to exploit.

I see ChromeOS as a popular terminal for businesses whose applications are all web-based.  Deployment of ChomeOS Machines would be simply opening the box and handing to an employee.  No setup or desktop support would be needed.  ChromeOS updates would be all that would ever need to be installed.

Also, for the garden-variety PC user who mostly browses the web, writes documents, emails and does light spreadsheets and powerpoint, a ChromeOS computer would still often be a more compelling choice than a tablet.  Text entry is key and just isn’t there yet on tablets.  While tablets are great, most people with them haven’t ditched their PCs entirely.

Why not deploy Android with its Webkit browser for Google PCs?

The idea behind ChromeOS and the reason it can be groundbreaking is because it strips away everything that isn’t a browser component and optimizes the experience for speed.  For a browser-based OS to replace an old-fashioned native application-based OS, the web apps have to be faaast.  On Netbooks that means cutting away everything that isn’t browser-essential and optimizing everything for speed.  If Google (GOOG) used Android, they’d have to include support for all of the apps in the OS and all the overhead support for other hardware, phones, multi-touch, etc.  While apps were running, the computer would slow down, decreasing the responsiveness of the browser.

Is anyone interested in a computer that only runs a browser?

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber makes an interesting point:

But I wonder if [Chrome] might not prove to be a sleeper hit for Google. Maybe the lesson from the iPad is not specifically that no-keyboard touchscreen tablets are the future, but rather that Apple has broken the logjam of thinking that all computers need to run a traditional OS like Windows or Mac OS X. There are certain use cases where a hardware keyboard is a necessity, and Chrome OS might scoop up that segment of the mobile market.

After backing up my photos, videos and movies to the cloud and having most of my important documents in Google Apps, I’ve realized that I am operating out of the cloud already (for the most part).  I spend most of my day in the browser and the other apps I use like stickies, Instant messaging, Twitter, a photo editor, a text editor and multimedia player application are all things I’ve used in the cloud.  Although the mobile world has gone apps, the desktop world, Apple’s Mac App Store notwithstanding, has gone browser.

Another Web based OS called Jolicloud just released their Jolibooks.  Joli is following this same model.

Even though ChromeOS devices look like they won’t be available until next year, Google has a chance to build a mainstream desktop OS that runs efficiently on cheap hardware.  If positioned right and executed perfectly, Google indeed may have a sleeper hit on its hands.