Why Google Chrome OS Will Fail

Google Chrome OS is a blogger's dream product. It's a lightweight operating system designed for fast bootup and running Web applications. It's based on Linux. And it's designed to stick Microsoft in the eye-everybody loves to stick Microsoft in the eye. But in reality, I don't see Chrome OS as having much appeal. This is a product that's doomed to fail.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

July 9, 2009

6 Min Read

Google Chrome OS is a blogger's dream product. It's a lightweight operating system designed for fast bootup and running Web applications. It's based on Linux. And it's designed to stick Microsoft in the eye-everybody loves to stick Microsoft in the eye. But in reality, I don't see Chrome OS as having much appeal. This is a product that's doomed to fail.The reason why Google Chrome OS is doomed to fail can be summed up in two words: Netbooks suck. Blogger Joey deVilla elaborates delightfully in a May blog post, comparing netbooks to the introduction of fast-food apple pies by Burger King and McDonald's 30 years ago.

He calls the chains "Monarch Burger" and "Jester Burger," and says Monarch Burger sold crappy pastries that looked somewhat like apple pies but tasted like cardboard. But Jester Burger went a different route, deVilla says:

Their dessert is called "apple pie", but it's one in the loosest sense. It's apple pie filling inside a pastry shell shaped like the photon torpedo casings from Star Trek. In the 70s and 80s, the pastry shell had bubbles all over it because it wasn't baked, but deep-fried. After all, their kitchens already had deep fryers aplenty - why not use them?

Unlike Monarch Burger's offering, Jester Burger's sold well because it gave their customers a dessert reminiscent of an apple pie without setting up any expectations for real apple pie.

Jester Burger's pie had an added bonus: unlike Monarch Burger's pie, which was best eaten with a fork, Jester Burger's pie was meant to be held in your hand, just like their burgers and fries.

deVilla's point: Netbooks are like Monarch Burger's apple pies, they're trying to be the real thing, but falling short. Netbooks are trying to be full notebook computers, but they're underpowered and consumers will be dissatisfied.

Devilla lays out the disadvantages of the netbook:

  • Size: A bit too large to go into your pocket; a bit too small for regular day-to-day work.

  • Power: Slightly more capable than a smartphone; slightly less capable than a laptop.

  • Price: Slightly higher than a higher-end smartphone but lacking a phone's capability and portability; slightly lower than a lower-end notebook but lacking a notebook's speed and storage.

The better approach: Follow Jester Burger's lead, and design for the strengths of a low-power, lightweight, inexpensive, highly portable device. When you do that, you end up with a smartphone. Smartphones are truly portable. Unlike netbooks, smartphones fit in your pocket. You can use smartphones when you're holding them in your hand; netbooks have to be set down on a flat surface. Netbooks are usually secondary computers, bought by people who already have desktops or notebooks; in that case, a smartphone is a better, more useful choice.

It's a wonderful essay, go read the whole thing. Devilla is a terrific writer, and he has the greatest blog name ever: "The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century" (he's an accordion player).

Chrome OS has another problem, which sets it apart from other netbooks: It only runs browser-based apps. Web apps don't do everything; they never will. Business users find Google Docs adequate for simple documents and spreadsheets, but when they need something more complex, they go to Microsoft Office. Users synch and play their music with iTunes. Graphics-rich games require local power to run.

Browser apps are wonderful; I use Gmail, Google Reader, and Facebook every day. At InformationWeek, we use browser apps to manage the Web site. But I don't write my articles in TeamSite, I write them in a desktop text editor, TextMate. Users will never rely solely on Web apps, because Web apps don't do enough. My colleague Serdar Yegulalp has more on the pitfalls of relying on Web apps. And the New York Times's Saul Hansell says:

Browsers don't yet do everything, and there are two decades of Windows applications that have been written, performing functions that can't yet be replicated in a browser. If you want to load music onto your iPod, for example, you need a computer that runs iTunes. Web sites often require programs to run alongside the browser, like Adobe's Acrobat viewer. Even Google writes Windows programs for its Picasa photo editing product and Google Earth 3-D mapping system.

I know what you're thinking now.

Go on, say it.

I promise I won't make fun of you.

You're thinking: Web apps are getting richer. Processing power is getting cheaper. Web apps will quickly evolve to be able to do everything that requires Microsoft Office, iTunes, and high-end graphical gaming equipment today.

Well, if you think that, you're an incredible nincompoop

(I know I promised not to make fun of you. I lied. You should know better than to trust a journalist.)

Sure, Web apps will evolve quickly to be able to do everything that desktop apps do today. But desktops are evolving too. When Web apps advance to catch up to 2009 desktop apps, desktop apps will be able to do a lot more.

The future for ultralight computing is the model that we see in the iPhone and Google's own Android: Lightweight, purpose-built applications that run on the client device, and access data and server-based apps in the cloud. Even Twitter uses that architecture; you can use Twitter in a Web browser, but enthusiasts prefer to use a purpose-built app like TweetDeck on the desktop, or Tweetie on the iPhone.

Netbooks are selling like gangbusters, but sales are already declining. Customers who buy netbooks are often dissatisfied. Many people buy one netbook, I don't see a lot of people buying a second.

Google can do two things to prove me wrong here: First, they need to open Chrome OS to lightweight, third-party apps. Not desktop apps, but rather apps that are purpose-built to run on low-powered devices. Also, they need to change the form factor. Chrome OS devices should not be traditional, clamshell laptops; they need to be tablets or some other form factor designed for on-the-go use. Otherwise, by the time vendors come out with Chrome OS devices late next year, the market will already have moved on.

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis of the next-generation Web applications. Download the report here (registration required).

Follow InformationWeek on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and FriendFeed:



Mitch Wagner

Mitch Wagner

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights