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Tony Mobily [opinions]

Why Google Chrome OS will turn GNU/Linux into a desktop winner [linux] [gnu/linux] [google] [chrome] [chrome-os] [desktop-linux]

A small revolution in the IT world is about to happen, and we are about to witness it. Microsoft Windows' domination has been challenged many times: first by OS/2 (failed), then Apple (failed), then Java and network computing (failed), then GNU/Linux and Ubuntu (failed, so far). And now, Google's Chrome OS. After such a long list of failures, what makes me think that this latest attempt will actually succeed?

There is a list of factors. Let's have a look.

#1: The Operating system is no longer important. In 2009, people develop for the Web, full stop

This point is very important. The strength of an operating system is amplified by the amount of software available for it. Microsoft Windows has benefited by a herd of developers writing all sorts of programs -- big and small -- which themselves made the Windows platform important. Java tried to break that with its virtual machine: the dream of writing software once, and running it anywhere (which didn't actually happen).

Times have changed; a lot. Anybody developing today (and for the last few years) does so for the Web. Even applications that not so long ago would have been dependent on an operating system, like document management, are now developed with a mixture of HTML, AJAX, and server side programs. People don't write Windows programs anymore. People write web applications. And it can't just be a company's slogan: applications need to "run everywhere".

Some programs are the exception here: I don't really see Photoshop becoming a web application anytime soon (although I might well be wrong). But most of the programs people use every day are moving onto the "cloud"; that's not necessarily a good thing (Google Documents is free but it's not free software!), but never-the-less this move is making the operating system increasingly less relevant.

#2: Google's market power

I will keep this simple. When you buy a printer, you always see the "Windows compatible" logo and you often see a "OS X compatible" logo too (and some of us see the irony here, since OS X uses many of the technologies GNU/Linux uses for printing). You never see a "GNU/Linux compatible" logo -- ever.

No GNU/Linux vendor has been able to change this. Expectations rose with Ubuntu, but I was disappointed. I don't think Canonical did anything wrong. I just think that the amount of strength it takes to reach such a point is immense -- both money wise, and in terms of strings that need to be pulled.

Google is the only company which could well change this. It has the power to create an infrastructure where hardware makers will actually be interested, pushed, motivated and bribed, in order to get peripherals to sport a "Chrome OS compatible" logo. The change for GNU/Linux users will be immense: regardless of the version of GNU/Linux they use, they will know that the peripheral will work.

#3: Google creates technically-sound systems

We all know that people at Google know what they are doing. Most people trust their products. Android is fantastic. I am not quite willing to forgive the fact that Android needs to be programmed in Java. It hurts me to say this (and I am sure plenty of people are ready to hurt me even more in the comments below), but I don't feel GNU/Linux is fully ready for the desktop user as it is. Ubuntu is the distribution that has gone the furthest in terms of end-user usability. However, software installation in GNU/Linux is still a problem and peripheral support is still patchy at times. These are, in my opinion, the key areas which make GNU/Linux adoption slow. Google is able to solve both of them: I am sure they will create a GNU/Linux distribution which won't have the problems I list in the article above, and will push hardware makers to add support to their peripherals -- and have the GNU/Linux compatibility logo I have been eagerly waiting for.

Will it be good, really?

There are basically no technical specifications about Google Chrome OS. It has been announced, but anything else has been pure speculation.

Here is my personal wish list -- these are all the things I consider important:

  • Software installation a la OS X: one directory = one end user application. (Keeping things secure with digital signatures for applications downloaded from other sources) This is extremely likely.

  • Availability of third-party software. This is GNU/Linux. I will want to be able to run Quake, GNU/Linux games, OpenOffice, and more. At Google, they will probably try their best to keep people online and use Google Documents, GMail, etc. However, I hope third-party software won't be treated as second-class citizens.

  • Availabiity of GNOME and KDE software. It might be done through third-party extensions, but running GNOME and KDE applications should be possible. There is a lot of amazingly good software out there. It would be absurd to expect the community to rewrite all of it.

  • Use X. The announcement talks about a "New window manager". This is all speculation, but they have three options: the first one is to ditch X altogether. This is immensely unlikely: too many drivers. The second one is to use X, but run something completely different on top of it -- a sort of full screen application which manages absolutely everything, without actually running a "proper" X Window manager. I think this is also unlikely, because it would make it really hard to run "normal" GNU/Linux programs. The third option would be to run X with their own window manager and provide some default libraries, which could well be KDE and Gnome or... well, this is speculation verging on clairvoyance, so let's wait and see!

  • Release under a free license. Seeing Google's history, especially with Android, this is highly likely.


Exciting times. I have just bought a Dell netbook, and would be totally happy to install the very first beta version of Google Chrome OS on it.

There is a chance Google might get a few things wrong, but this is the right time to make ourselves heard -- and excited.

And... let's be polite. Thank you Google.


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