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7/10/2009
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Google Chrome OS: Web Platform To Rule Them All

With Chrome OS, Google aims to make the Web the primary platform for software development.

Google's plan to release its own operating system based on its Chrome browser is at once audacious and laughable. Microsoft Windows represents slightly less than 90% of the personal computer operating system market, a position it has held for years.

Google's industry ally, Apple, has managed to steal a few percentage points of market share away from Microsoft in the past twelve years under the singular leadership of CEO Steve Jobs. But Windows remains the dominant operating system, more dominant even than Google is in search.

And with the forthcoming release of Windows 7, Microsoft appears to be well-prepared to defend its empire.

It's hard to imagine a less promising business for Google to enter, especially given that Google plans to give Chrome OS away for free. And Google's grand plan to shake up the operating system market isn't made more credible by the absence of any actual programming code or substantive information about Chrome OS.

Yet, the fact that Google has partners that share its vision says something about the shakiness of Microsoft's position. Acer, Adobe, ASUS, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Toshiba are all working with Google to help it re-imagine the operating system. So too is Intel, as The Register reports.

Google's decision to target the netbook market may help the prospects of Chrome OS. Although Microsoft has made a concerted effort to push Windows on netbooks to fend off low-cost Linux-based challengers, Google may find it easier to compete in the netbook market because access to cloud-based services and software is more valuable on devices with constrained resources than on high-powered desktop computers.

Steve Andriole, professor of information technologies at the Villanova School of Business, observed in an e-mail that Google's announcement comes at the right time, just as the industry is moving to smaller, more mobile devices.

He believes that both pricing and Google's vendor relationships will play major roles in determining the acceptance of Chrome OS.

The fact that Chrome OS applications will be written using open Web standards like JavaScript, HTML, and CSS might seem like a liability because Web applications still aren't as capable as applications written for specific devices and operating systems.

But Google is betting that will change and is working to effect the change on which its bet depends. Within a year or two, Web browsers will gain access to peripherals, through an infrastructure layer above the level of device drivers. Google's work with standards bodies is making that happen.

According to Matt Womer, the "ubiquitous Web activity lead" for W3C, the Web standards consortium, Web protocol groups are working to codify ways to access peripherals like digital cameras, the messaging stack, calendar data, and contact data.

There's now a JavaScript API that Web developers can use to get GPS information from mobile phones using the phone's browser, he points out. What that means is that device drivers for Chrome OS will emerge as HTML 5 and related standards mature. Without these, consumers would never use Chrome OS because devices like digital cameras wouldn't be able to transfer data.

Womer said the standardization work could move quite quickly, but won't be done until there's an actual implementation. That would be Chrome OS.

And as the long-foretold Internet of Things emerges -- allowing everyday objects to be addressed via online queries -- Chrome OS will be well positioned to help Google organize even more of the world's information than the company already handles.

Chrome OS will sell itself to developers because, as Google puts it, writing applications for the Web gives "developers the largest user base of any platform."

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on application development. Download the report here (registration required).

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