Chrome OS and the death of the Free desktop: a response

The article "Google Chrome OS. Or, how KDE and GNOME managed to shoot each other dead" is intentionally outspoken and controversial. It invites comment and criticism - one can hardly declare two of the best known and most widely used Free Software projects to be "dead" without causing uproar.

A key part of the author's argument is that Google Chrome OS is likely to be both valuable to the public, and also very widely used. I'd like to contest the first part of this assumption.

Some of the ideas of Google Chrome OS interest me too. However, let's not be too hasty to welcome the concepts behind Google's new product.

"Google promises a much needed shift in the way small computers work. Problems like software updates, backups, installation, maintenance, viruses, have plagued the world for too long: a shift is way overdue"

Google handles disk space, filesystem problems, backups etc.. The price? Control over your working environment

Yes, Google basically promises to 'manage' your computing activities on your behalf, taking this responsibility from the user's shoulders. A bit like hiring an office cleaner - you're getting someone else to tidy away your mess, and make sure that your work place is free from fire hazards. Google handles disk space, filesystem problems, backups etc.. The price? Control over your working environment. "Problems" like being able to make decisions about how your machine runs, and being able to check that it's secure, are outsourced to Google.

However, unlike most office cleaners, Google is offering this service 'for free'. So you have someone cleaning your office who you know needs to make enough to cover the time they spend interacting with your things. Hiring this cleaner means putting your trust in someone to have unmonitored, unmitigated access to your information when it's clear that they need to somehow make a living out of what they find.

To me this doesn't sound like a step forward. It sounds very unsafe. Security threats aren't going to disappear because google says so - you just aren't going to have any idea how they are being handled. Apart from the privacy worries, plastering over all the technical and practical aspects of an operating system with a thick corporate veneer from Google is every IT teacher's nightmare - have we really come so far with GNU/Linux that every application on your machine can be investigated, studied and rearranged, only to step so far backwards to a situation where you have even less idea of how your computer works than if you're running Windows? Moving most of the code that powers your applications to a remote machine guarded by Google puts extra distance between you and the technology that you reply upon.The extent to which Chrome will be Open Source remains unclear. My money's on Google not releasing a single line of code they don't have to.

Having expressed my concerns that the advent of Chrome may be a bad thing, lets look at some of the author's other statement in light of this conclusion.

"To me, however, the change about to happen shows us what many people have refused to believe for a long time: KDE and GNOME shot each other dead"

"Google and you want to provide the operating system...what desktop environment would you feed those new users? KDE? GNOME?"

"if GNU/Linux had one set of desktop libraries, one desktop environment, one set of standard for playing audio and so on, we would have those libraries in Google Chrome OS"

For me, this is a very big leap. Google Chrome OS is not a normal OS. In fact, it's not a traditional OS at all by my standards. To my mind, it bears few similarities to traditional Gnome and KDE based desktops. How is it obvious that the explanation for the unique approach that Google have taken with Chrome OS is that Gnome and KDE failed to meet Chrome OS's requirements? The article seems to argue that if Free DEs existed as a single homogeneous whole then Google would have opted to develop a more traditional GNU/Linux OS.

I don't consider it a failing of these two ground breaking projects that their goals didn't predict the technological requirements of Chrome OS

It seems to me however far more likely that Google knew from the first that they wanted a new type of OS that gave them control over their user's data and left no room for meaningful privacy. After all, this is a principle that has motivated several other Google technologies. To me, a browser seems a more logical place to start when designing such a system than basing it on a weighty desktop environment designed for local installation. As I see it Chrome OS is fundamentally different to a Gnome/KDE based OS, and no matter how unified these DE's may have been, they would simply not have been suited to adaptation by Google into the thin web client that they want.

I don't consider it a failing of these two ground breaking projects that their goals didn't predict the technological requirements of Chrome OS.

"The risk here is that Google leaves this important issue up to individual developers"

Personally, I don't view the ability to package the applications that I maintain to a new platform to be a bad thing (speaking hypothetically - I'm not actually a maintainer). In my view, quite the opposite is the risk - that Google alone is able to make applications available on Chrome, and that non-Google developers will have no autonomy or input whatsoever into how their software is implemented (if their work is included at all). It doesn't seem like a traditional Free Software concern to worry that FOSS developers will have too much control over their applications on a platform. If Chrome OS does get massively popular, do you really want Google to be it's totalitarian dictator?

"Whoever said that competition was good, that it was OK for GNU/Linux to have two competing desktop environments, was crazy. The harm done to GNU/Linux was simply immense"

The harm done by the co-existence of these two projects is to be measured in terms of their inclusion by one of the world's most monstrous companies in their new product which is fundamentally different to both Gnome & KDE's nature and goals? I don't rate a DE based on whether it will provide Google (or Microsoft, or Sun or any other corporate giant) with a perfect platform to enclose and cripple user rights and freedoms.

I'm not going to go into detail about how choice is a fundamental principal and benefit of Free Software, or how there are many more than just two DEs and what a good thing this is. We're all already familiar with these ideas and I assume that the author skipped over them due to the pursuit of brevity, and not out of disregard.

In my view competition has been a good thing for both KDE and Gnome. I can't predict what would have happened if it had been a one horse race, and I'm not involved enough with the development of either DE to know how it has affected them internally. However, I know that both projects have worked together extensively to learn from each other (not least by co-hosting conferences), and have at least in this respect had a symbiotic relationship for years. They offer users different experiences, they offer different technologies for development, they thrash out innovation in often differing and complimentary directions. Just look at the discussion around every KDE release to see how the existence of a large unique alternative environment is helpful for determining user needs and wants.

"Goodbye desktop"

This is surely an overstatement. And if it really is "goodbye desktop" then we can conclude much more than merely that Gnome and KDE should have fused. It will mean that, for me at least, Free Software is dead (if your software isn't even running on your machine then you're more divorced than ever from fundamental freedoms). It will mean that Google has redirected decades of desktop computer use as we know it to a new platform, a new technology, a new concept. I suspect that it would mean that no matter how good FOSS was, it just wasn't good enough to trump Google's endless resources.

And for that matter, had Google turned us all into hapless thin web client users, but done so with the help of FOSS DE technology, then I for one certainly wouldn't consider that a victory for Free Software. It would mean that we as a community had given Google the fire-power to disenfranchise us all. I'd feel more resentful towards Google if we had been enablers of their historic victory over computer users.

Fundamentally then, I disagree with the author that the advent of Chrome OS will be a good thing. I disagree that a single desktop environment for GNU/Linux would necessarily better serve the needs of it's users or developers. And furthermore I disagree that it's reasonable to measure the success of KDE and Gnome by whether they are worthy of being included as part of Chrome OS.

Declaring these wildly creative and successful projects "dead" as a result of this way of thinking is to miss the point of their existence. They provide freedom and choice to computer users throughout the world. Being a key component of a new technology which seeks to dominate, control and spy on millions of users would not serve the ends of these projects, and would be no kind of victory.


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