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Google’s Chrome OS: science project or serious product?

07/08/2009

Google’s Chrome OS announcement has lit up the blogosphere; the OS is expected to hit the market late in 2010. Most of the excitement seems to center on the fact that this is the first genuine salvo in the persistently-rumored titanic showdown between Google and Microsoft. As much as the pundits’ would like to see some serious competition for Windows–a desire I fully support if only to see what Google’s innovative take on an OS might be–it is worth looking over Google’s own product history and some key factors that have led to Microsoft’s dominance of the desktop to divine whether Chrome OS stands a chance.

Microsoft’s dominance of enterprise and consumer desktops has come about because of their OEM relationships and their immensely successful Office productivity suite. Microsoft has one of the widest set of OEM partners in the industry and it’s certainly not going to look on benignly if Google attempts to capture some of those for itself. Let’s remember that this is the same Microsoft that dominated and in some cases coerced major OEMs to play primarily by its rules in what might in principle be a co-equal relationship. Google, relatively speaking, appears to be a loner that is used to agenda-setting roles in its existing relationships. Google faces an uphill task not only in cultivating this OEM relationship-building DNA but also to emerge as a serious alternative that OEMs can offer enterprises (let’s not forget the enterprise is where Microsoft makes most of its money).

Which brings me directly to the second reason Microsoft has been successful: because enterprises actually want Office. Billions of dollars worth of enterprise value are riding on the strength of Office productivity applications. Although Google Apps introduces a fundamentally new angle to collaboration in productivity applications, I have not come across too many enterprises that have switched entirely away from Office (or Office clones) to Google Apps. This hesitation is not just because Google Apps don’t have all the productivity features enterprises expect but also because the impedance mismatch between desktop and Web applications has not yet been crossed compellingly. Chrome OS has to be a lot more than a conduit to deliver Web-based browser applications – it must also integrate with cloud storage, desktop search and task management. Until Google can make a compelling case that the user experience of today’s desktop/laptop-bound knowledge worker won’t be altered for the worse, it will have trouble pushing product.

Add to the above the fact that Google often seems out of its depth when selling packaged products to consumers or enterprises. Not only is the concept foreign to the company’s hip, Webby DNA, a simple Google search will show that the company has been found lacking in responsive customer service even for its paying customers. Google may well give away the OS to OEMs as a loss leader to complement its Web portfolio but supporting it nonetheless requires focus and staying power from a company that has left several initially promising products languishing by the wayside.

When Chrome was initially announced, I was intrigued by its inventive approach to Web-based computing. I’ll continue to watch Google with a cautiously optimistic eye because it’s one of the few companies that realistically stands to reinvent the desktop OS experience. A lot of things may appear not to be lined up in Google’s favor at this point, but a lot of things can change in the year and a half that’s yet to pass before Chrome OS comes out.

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