Google Chrome OS – Yet another take

Since the announcement of Google’s Chrome OS two weeks ago there has been a lot of commentary in the blogosphere and mainstream media.
They cover three important points:
1) Why would Google make an OS
2) Will it be successful
3) What impact will it have

Asa Dotzler from Firefox makes a good summary of what kind of metrics could be regarded as succesful for Chrome OS with the result that wildly successful would still only mean 2% of the total OS market.

The articles I read about why would Google make an OS (TechCrunch, CNet) all seemed to focus on the idea that “More time spent on the web = More money for Google”. While this is true to an extent, it misses a few important qualifications.
Qualification 1: Advertising and in particular online advertising only grows if the advertisers gain more money from increasing their advertising. So people spending more time on the web only equals more money for Google if they also buy more from the advertisers. Otherwise more time on the web (more ad impressions) just leads to lower average CPMs across the whole internet.
Qualification 2: Trying to grow revenue by increasing overall time spent on the web is a very indirect strategy. It would need to have a massive effect on users browsing habits to make a difference which would then be spread out among all sites on the web not just sites with Google ads. Google only has about 30% of the online advertising market so this strategy is pretty far out there from a business perspective. To think of it another way, it’s kind of like an umbrella manufacturer doing cloud-seeding to make it rain more. Doesn’t really make sense.

So what are some more likely reasons for Google’s Chrome OS.

1) Web as a platform
This phrase is thrown around a lot but I don’t think many people fully get what it means and how important it is to Google.
Web as a platform means applications are written in a web standard way (HTML, Javascript and CSS) on the client side and can communicate via HTTP with a server running whatever you want. This is how standard web apps like Gmail etc. work now and more and more applications are being delivered this way. We are also starting to see these kind of apps delivered in new ways. The Prism project from Mozilla takes a web app and gives it it’s own process in the OS just like any other native application but still using web standards. Adobe Air, Palm’s Web OS and Mozilla’s XUL-Runner all also basically give you a way to run a web app like a native application. Chrome OS is basically just taking this idea to it’s logical endpoint. All applications are run as web apps.
The web as a platform is such a powerful idea because it has the potential to really deliver on the “write once, run anywhere” idea with an added bonus of “update automatically”.
It’s important to Google because:
a) they want to reach as many people as possible with their applications (and ads)
b) they want to do this with the least cost possible.
c) they are already very good at doing this and have a strong competitive advantage.
Currently to build a native application that runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, Iphone, Android, Symbian and Windows Mobile takes a massive amount of development effort and cost that even Google struggles with for all but the most popular applications. If you use the web as your platform instead you can already reach all these platforms with almost no changes. And if your application can be run in the same way as native apps on that platform then there is no need for a native app anymore.
How can Google hope to influence the entire OS market to follow their lead? In the web browser market we can already see how browsers with a minority market share can push the market leader to follow standards.
Having an OS built on the same standards would also push the other larger OSes to follow the standards as well. And all web applications would work without any major modification so Google would have a huge development community from the start.

2) Remove reliance on third parties.

A second likely reason for Chrome OS is because currently Google relies on other companies products to deliver it’s own products. The products relevant here are the browser and the OS. Google relies on Mozilla to direct a large amount of traffic to it’s site through the browser search box. But Google has little leverage (other than money) over Mozilla to continue doing this. If some other company offers more money then Mozilla has little incentive to stay with Google. Browser’s implementing their own features rather than standards also hurts Google because it has to adjust all it’s products to support this. These are the reasons Google built the Chrome browser.

So does the same logic apply to the OS? Not as directly as any changes that OS makers make are taken into account by the browsers themselves so Web applications don’t need to deal with them. But Google is thinking beyond just web applications delivered in the browser. It really wants the web standards and APIs that we have in the browser to be the base of all applications. Google wants applications like Gmail to be able to run just like it’s native competitors (Outlook) but with all the advantages of the cloud. I guess Palm’s PreOS is a good example of where Google sees the future of applications.

So is Google’s vision of the future realistic? It’s not unrealistic, and how technology evolves is not just something that happens by itself. The people creating the technology have the control and Google wants to be one of those leaders, not just a follower.

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