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Can Google's Chrome OS Outshine Windows?

When a reporter accosted Bill Gates last week at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Idaho to solicit his reaction to the Google's announcement that it will launch an operating system targeted at netbooks, he said "no comment."

At that moment, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who was just a few feet away from Gates, said, "it would be better if you didn't make that comment."  While that widely reported sidebar described the two as laughing following the awkward encounter, the main story has generated some serious questions and debate.

Reaction is decidedly mixed. In its initial form though, it's hard to make direct comparisons between Chrome OS and Windows 7.  "I don't think that it's a direct frontal assault on Windows, it's more a flanking maneuver, in the sense that it's a use case of cloud computing from netbooks," said Gartner analyst Ray Valdes in an interview last week. "I think eventually it will have an impact on enterprises but not at least within the next three years."

The concept of a Web centric browser has not totally been lost on Microsoft either. Helen Wang, a senior researcher in Microsoft Research's Systems and Networking Group, will be presenting a paper next month on the Gazelle Web Browser, a project that seeks to evolve the browser into an operating system, according to a blog posting June 29.

Still Valdes warns not to read too much into Gazelle. "It's got minimal resources," he said. "I don't think Gazell itself will ever become a product but it's tough to believe that some of the concepts regarding it won't show up in Microsoft products."

As for Chrome OS, Valdes wrote in a blog posting "if Google delivers on its plan, it seems that Chrome OS will be the first cloud-oriented OS to ship."

Jay Lyman, an analyst at The 451 Group, agreed. "This is the most significant 'cloud' OS to date and it further demonstrates how in many ways and increasingly, the Internet is serving as the operating system for many devices and users," Lyman said in an e-mail.

While Lyman does see Google's move as an assault on Microsoft's Windows dominance, "the greater competitive threat may be to current Linux OS providers in the desktop and netbook space, such as Canonical and Xandros. Users who are already considering or using an alternative OS will likely be the biggest audience for Chrome OS."

Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady agrees. "The various Linux distributions are less highly differentiated from Chrome OS than is Windows," O'Grady wrote in a blog posting.  "Customers purchasing Windows are typically doing for specific reasons; they rely on Windows compatible applications, they're used to it, and so on. The competing Linux distributions enjoy no such visibility yet."

Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin sees it differently. In a blog posting last week, Zemlin declared Google's announcement as a victory for Linux. "The more companies and manufacturers base their products on Linux, the stronger Linux becomes," he wrote.

Because Chrome OS will be Linux based and open source, it could have implications for development, Lyman noted, given Google's size and influence. "It will be interesting to see what type of licensing and community path Google lays out for the new OS," Lyman noted.

Whether you are a developer or an architect, what's your take on how Chrome OS may some day impact the way you develop applications? Drop me a line at [email protected].

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on July 12, 2009