Operating system decisions used to be so simple. Virtually every option started with Windows, and your only real decisions revolved around when to upgrade and to what specific version.
Those days are over. Sure, 9 out of 10 computers run some form of Windows, and the upcoming release of Windows 7 should at least maintain this dominance for a little while longer. Microsoft isn’t disappearing anytime soon, nor is its all-powerful Windows franchise. Whether we’re buying for our businesses or our homes, we all tend to value choices that are both familiar and broadly supported. Critical mass is everything here, which explains why no one Linux alternative has been successful in the commercial mainstream. Too quirky for the average joe.
But as much as we could conceivably continue on Windows cruise control forever, Google’s announcement in June of its upcoming Chrome OS signals a subtle but important change in the operating system market. We’re transitioning from an era of Microsoft-or-nothing, desktop-focused operating systems to a more competitive landscape marked by the emergence of increasingly capable mobile devices.
With this paradigm shift toward new form, factors and capabilities already well underway, the traditional OS that boots up in the morning, runs productivity and connectivity apps all day and then shuts down at night is changing. Cell phones and smart phones sport operating systems that turn on virtually instantly, let us quickly look something up, make a call or IM our moms, then turn off and are stuffed back into our pockets.
As more of us use mobile devices to chew through increasingly sophisticated tasks, the mobile OS will continue to gain features that were once the exclusive domain of larger, wired PCs. Moreover, what happens in your hand will influence what happens on a typical PC, as features and attributes near and dear to road warriors — speed and simplicity, for the most part — start showing up on larger machines, too. It’s no accident that Windows 7 boots faster, runs more quickly and takes up less space than Vista. It’s also no accident that Apple’s iPhone OS is so closely related to the OS X code base that powers every Mac currently sold. At this rate, it’s conceivable that tomorrow’s OS will be neither mobile nor full-sized. It’ll simply adapt to whatever device the vendor chooses.
Google’s rationale for developing its own operating system is similar to the reason for making its own browser: Between them, operating systems and browsers represent key gateways to everything we do both online and off. Google clearly dominates the Web-based search and advertising markets, but it does so through other organizations’ code. To get to Google.com, we need an OS — usually Windows — and a browser, typically Internet Explorer or, increasingly, Firefox.
Google wants to end, or at least reduce, its reliance on others for delivery of its services. While neither Microsoft nor Mozilla would ever deliberately block Google’s services from running on their respective OS and browser products, there’s value in being master of your own domain. The kid who owns the ball doesn’t only get to make the rules; he also wins the option of tilting the game in his favor. Sure, it isn’t always fair play, and in the business world, Microsoft’s uber-competitive strategies have landed it on the wrong side of antitrust investigators both here and in Europe. But from a purely technical perspective, you stand a better chance of promoting your own interests if you own a greater chunk of the tools that make it all possible.
Google’s Chrome browser illustrates this truth nicely, with a code base that leverages the programming baked into its online applications as well. The upshot? Google’s Web apps run noticeably faster on the Chrome browser because both programming teams get to toss ideas around over lunch in the Googleplex. The same thinking pervades Google’s plans for its Chrome OS. But moving from browser to OS is a big step, even for a company with Google’s resources, which largely explains why Windows won’t be disappearing anytime soon. OS vendors burn huge amounts of resources on hardware integration and testing — something a pure-play Web-based operation like Google hasn’t had to deal with. Until now.
Given the steep road that lies ahead of any vendor — let alone one with Google’s track record — in bringing a new OS to market, it’ll be a while before we find ourselves standing in front of two otherwise identical laptops in the big box electronics store and considering the relative merits of Microsoft Windows vs. Google Chrome OS. But the sheer fact that Google is venturing into territory few commercial vendors outside of the odd Linux shop have dared to tread strongly suggests the operating system as we know it is irrevocably changing, and the way we use our machines will undergo similarly tectonic change over the next couple of years.
As more of us use mobile devices to chew through increasingly sophisticated tasks, the mobile OS will continue to gain features that were once the exclusive domain of larger, wired PCs.
Carmi Levy is a technology journalist and analyst with experience launching help desks and managing projects for major financial services institutions. He offers consulting advice on enterprise infrastructure, mobility and emerging social media. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.