Switched On: With Google, this is not your father's OS war

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Google's incursions into software -- particularly in strategic markets for Microsoft, are like an Earth-bound asteroid. Observers see it coming for a long time, and fear its impact will be devastating when it finally arrives. So far, though, Google's major software forays have been anything but cataclysmic, and Microsoft hasn't even had to send Bruce Willis into space to stop them.

On one hand -- as I discussed in a recent Switched On column that argued why Android was not the right choice for netbooks -- the mobile operating system continues to have a lot of potential to reshape the smartphone OS competitive landscape. On the other hand, while Chrome is a fine browser, Microsoft, Apple and Mozilla all have their counterparts, and certainly Firefox and Safari at least give Google's browser a run for its money in terms of speed, privacy and user interface. Chrome's impact has been blunted because the PC is already an open platform.

Enter Chrome OS, which will be available on ARM and Intel processors. For the high-volume Intel PC market, Chrome OS will have to take on Windows, but Chrome OS is very different than other Windows competitors such as the Mac OS, Ubuntu or the OS/2 of yore, in that Google does not seem focused on creating platform-exclusive applications. In some ways, Chrome is more of a competitor to Silverlight than to Windows, as Silverlight is Microsoft's cross-platform application foundation. Of course, Windows is Microsoft's home field, and Chrome OS will be Google's.

And since Chrome is the key to cross-platform compatibility of Web apps, will one be able to run other browsers (notably Firefox) on Chrome? Google's official blog notes that "apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux." Note that Google reserves "standards-based browser(s)" for other operating systems. How ironic it would be if Google's OS were less "open" to browser competition than Apple's or Microsoft's?

Google offers the promise of similar architectural improvements it made with Chrome, but also tantalizes with the notion of universal remote access and backup to the cloud a la Apple's MobileMe, Palm's webOS and Microsoft's MyPhone service. Chrome OS could mark the debut of Google's long-rumored GDrive competitor to Apple's iDisk and Microsoft's SkyDrive. And perhaps Google Chrome OS will support universal remote wipe.

But none of this may be enough to make Chrome OS more successful than any of the other lightweight "Web-centric" and security-conscious Linux variants that have been offered by major netbook manufacturers. Sure, Google can build something on top of Linux, lend it a halo and buy it some wings. But despite a fair amount of media attention, something that sounds conceptually very similar to Chrome OS has already been tried and has failed to catch on.

And Chrome OS won't escape Windows competition running on ARM. It's just that the competition with Windows will be less direct as ARM-based netbooks or smartbooks (clamshells with a 7-inch or greater screen) will have to compete against Intel-based ones. With smaller screens, there's a larger question about the viability of any device to differentiate from ever-more sophisticated smartphones while still being pocketable.

What's in a name? Chrome OS will have different value to Google than operating systems have for Apple and Microsoft. For Google, Chrome OS is merely an extension of the browser. It is even less important strategically than Android, which seeks to ensure open access to the Net on a device that is often beholden to carrier in addition to manufacturer demands. Sure, Chrome OS theoretically marginalizes Windows and OS X APIs, eroding their value. But it is needed where only where OS X and Windows are not. Unlike in the fast-evolving market of smartphones, though, there aren't many of those holes to fill in the PC market.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.