a chrome plated techno future

The hot news in Nerdland this week was Google's announcement that it is going to use Chrome, its recently released web-browsing program, as the basis for a whole new computer operating system. I did a write-up about Chrome in this column some months ago.

The hot news in Nerdland this week was Google’s announcement that it is going to use Chrome, its recently released web-browsing program, as the basis for a whole new computer operating system.

I did a write-up about Chrome in this column some months ago.

My point at the time was that the program itself was not really very interesting, but the fact that Google was getting into the web browser game was an interesting industrial development.

It struck me at the time that, though the first version of Chrome marked a pretty humble beginning, there was a certain self-defensive business logic in Google’s decision to have a go at gaining control of the customer-side of its online web search and other services.

Google controls something like 81 per cent of the search site market, and its market share is growing. (It had a 79 per cent share about a year ago.)

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer controls about 66 per cent of the web browser market, though its market dominance is waning, as the Firefox web browser gains in popularity.

(In 2004, Internet Explorer had 91 per cent of the web browser market compared to Firefox’s 3.7 per cent. Firefox now has about 22 per cent.)

With Microsoft gearing up to go compete more actively with Google in the web search market, there was a real danger to Google that Microsoft might fiddle with its majority-market web browser to make Google’s site less compatible in some way with Internet Explorer, giving an advantage to its own Bing search site.

By developing and popularizing a web browser over which they had direct control, Google could give itself a resource to mitigate the damage of any such development.

But now Google has gone one step further, and is turning Chrome from a passive defence into an active offence directed against Microsoft’s long-established dominance of the home computer operating system market.

At first glance, this looks a lot like another case of the ant and the rubber tree plant.

Between its Windows XP and Vista offerings, Microsoft controls around 88 per cent of the desktop operating system market.

Its closest competitor—insofar as it has any competitor at all—is Apple, with its OS X, which has just under a 10 per cent share.

On the other hand, if you are an ambitious, well-funded IT company with an already huge internet-user clientele, this is a good time to try to make a dent in that Microsoft hegemony.

It is by now pretty much an industry-wide truism that Microsoft flagrantly missed the boat in its development and release of Vista.

Vista is a huge, powerful, big-meat-eating dinosaur of a system, trying to stay alive in an environment that has been drastically altered by the meteor strike of mobile computing.

Though, to be fair, it has good aesthetics and a few attractive features, Vista is the ultimate example of fatwear—bloated with needless features, gobbling up your computer’s resources like a famished tyrannosaurus.

Microsoft designed it with an eye toward the dual-core, lots-a gigahertz desktops and laptops of the modern age.

Which is all well and good, except that the future growth market in computers is not likely to be so much in conventional PC’s as in network-linked, portable computing devices—the future, more powerful iterations of devices like today’s netbooks or the iPod Touch, for which operating systems like Vista are both too cumbersome and totally unnecessary.

Those devices are likely to be largely web-browser driven, exploiting the potential of “cloud computing,” where the serving computer on the network stores all the data and runs all the programs, and your client device simply pulls down the results through the web.

As the lead-in on the Google blog site about Chrome OS, Google is “designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way …”

In other words, Chrome is intended to be an operating system exactly opposite to the slow-loading, ponderously interfaced OS that is Windows XP or Vista.

Given that it is still very early days in this new enterprise, it is too soon to say whether Chrome OS will be a winner, or whether it will go the way of other operating systems touted by super-corporations (think IBM’s OS2) that entered the fray with a lot of smoke and mirrors and ended up lost in the dust.

As I have already said, the Chrome web browser, while not a bad little beta program, did not have the look of any kind of “killer app,” so who is to say how innovative or market-changing the follow-up operating system is going to be?

At the very least, though, Google’s announcement presages some interesting techno-times ahead.

They have, in effect, announced their intention to go head to head with the ultimate big guy, Microsoft, on their own home turf of the search site, and on Microsoft’s home turf of the computer OS.

I am not sure there is any “good guy” in this particular tussle, but it should be an interesting fight to watch from the cheap seats.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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