The news media and blogosphere are abuzz this week over Google's Chrome OS -- often carrying the requisite "Windows Killer" designation. I usually turn away from any "killer" claims, as they're often just link bait. But this time it could carry some weight.
Carrying the same name as the Chrome browser, the long-rumored OS will be built specifically for lightweight Web apps and netbooks. In other words, it's a shot at Microsoft's longstanding paradigm of big heavy OS's that run big heavy desktop software.
With the advent of cloud computing, this is no longer a reality. More users are turning from desktops to laptops and netbooks. That means less Microsoft Office and Outlook, and more Google Docs and Gmail.
Chrome OS will be open source, built on the Linux kernel and optimized for machines that run on x86 and ARM chips. These power an increasing share of notebooks and netbooks. Its price tag (free) should also resonate with OEMs, whose margins are being cut thin by pricing pressure.
If this sounds familiar, that's because it's the same philosophy behind Google Android (mobile OS). Chrome can be seen as Android's counterpart in the PC world. Android has already been announced to run a handful of netbooks, and Google admits some overlap between the two.
Like Android, Chrome OS is well suited to the technical specifications of the devices it will power, and the ways they're being used. This could entice developers to build more Web-based products.
Again, this may sound familiar. The red hot mobile world is moving in this direction. As discussed in "The Future of the Mobile Web: To App or Not to App?" mobile Web browsers -- starting with Safari -- are adopting better standards. The result is mobile Web apps that can have functionality previously reserved for more resource-intensive native apps.
This greater functionality will allow some developers to sidestep the process of native app development by instead building mobile Web sites. Advantages include cost and ability to reach more users with a common standard that breaks free from one particular platform or OS.
This is the same direction Chrome is moving in the desktop environment, with an OS that fosters faster, lighter (and cheaper) Web-based products. The goal is to enable developers to build Web products that have functionality previously reserved for desktop software.
The HTML 5 standard is wrapped up in all of this. For those unfamiliar, HTML 5 is a new Web programming standard that will be baked into the next generation of browsers and enable all of the functionality alluded to thus far.
Among other things, this will include a common video standard, offline capabilities, drag and drop features, and location awareness. It's the latter that gets me most excited, having implications for sites to automatically serve content (and ads) targeted to a user's precise location.
The point is that there will be much more "self-contained" functionality within Web-based products to do things that previously required plug-ins or leaving the browser altogether to launch separate applications. Many of these functions will involve search.
Searching for a Better Web
As the search leader, Google is at the forefront of this movement, going back further than this week's Chrome OS launch. Google's VP of Strategy Vic Gundotra has been an outspoken advocate of HTML 5, most recently seen at Google's I/O conference in San Francisco.
Google has been moving in this direction for years. Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Docs all represent this push toward more capable Web-based products. The most recent examples that will plug right into this ecosystem are Google Wave and Google Voice.
Further supporting this week's evolutionary step, the set of products under the Google Apps banner (Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, etc.) each lifted the "beta" tag they've held for years. This happened the day before the Google Chrome OS announcement, and is no coincidence.
All of these products were made possible over the past five years by broadband penetration and Moore's Law. A faster, lighter OS represents the next step in this evolution. It's a big step, but not an unexpected one, following the trend towards better cloud computing and mobility.