While the biggest OS announcement of the week award goes to Microsoft and the availability of the Windows 8 release preview, Google also introduced an updated version of its Chrome OS as well as updated hardware in the form of a Chromebook and the brand new Chromebox made by Samsung. Although reception to both the Chromebook and the new OS have been relatively positive there is still one question that Google needs to answer, why does it feel the need to bring a new OS to the computer market.
Chrome OS is Google’s browser based operating system that is designed to appeal to those people who merely use their computers to browse the internet. Instead of storing applications locally on the Chromebook Google has designed the OS so that all apps and icons are actually bookmarks, that when clicked take you to the designated application on the web. For example the Twitter icon on the desktop takes you into the Chrome browser and to the Twitter website. However, the inherent problem with basing an operating system on the browser is that without internet connection both the Chromebook and Chrome OS are practically useless.
A Lack of Strategy and the Changing Market
Indeed it seems that after the success of Android Google felt as though it now had the market penetration to enter the desktop and laptop spaces. The problem, however, is it seems to have lacked a coherent strategy from which to build upon. When first announced Chrome OS was “targeted at netbooks”, with “speed, simplicity and security” being the key words used to describe the OS. However, almost two years on from the announcement Google has brought out a desktop version of the Chromebook in the form of the Chromebox. Reminiscent of the Mac mini in size and shape, the Chromebox has the same specifications of the Chromebook but is slightly cheaper. Releasing a desktop version of the Chromebook seems to go back on the statement that Google was targeting the netbook market and hints at the fact that even Google itself may not have a coherent strategy for its newly formed OS.
Delving deeper we see that Google’s decision to enter the desktop space with the Chromebox may actually have something to do with the declining sales of netbooks. Last year in Western Europe netbook sales fell 12.8%, greater than the overall decline of the computer market which fell by 11.4%. This was on top of netbooks decline in sales during 2010. The emergence of the Ipad and Android tablets can certainly be seen as a reason for the decline in netbook sales. Upon announcing Chromebooks Google was keen to highlight the extremely fast boot times of the device. Indeed the new Chromebook released last week resumes from sleep in two seconds. Yet while this is impressive, tablets are able to resume even faster than this, are lighter, smaller and carry out nearly the exact same functionality that Chromebooks do. They also maintain some functionality while offline. It seems that Google is hoping that the Chromebox, being a desktop device, is not in competition with tablets and will therefore target a different consumer audience. Yet even if this is the case the Chromebox is an extremely niche product. Retailing for $329 the Chomebox is certainly cheap yet it too lacks much of the functionality you would expect from a desktop device, even one so small. For $599 you can buy the Mac mini that while the same size as the Chromebox is much more powerful and can only be described as a much more useful device. The Chromebox for instance is even unable to act as a media pc as everything runs through the chrome browser. Google has promised that an offline version of Google Docs will be coming to both the Chromebook and Chromebox in the coming weeks. But the fact that this wasn’t included for the new OS’s update really does seem to highlight the fact Google is unsure of what it wants its new Chrome OS to be. Is it meant to be a fourth computer operating system or is it meant to be an alternative to the touch based operating systems of iOS and android.
The Chromium Paradox
Chrome OS’s limited functionality offline causes us to believe that Google’s OS is somewhat paradoxical in nature, it seems to be a glimpse of the future in the form factor of the past. An OS based entirely on being connected to the internet is clearly a vision of the future. As more and more people around the globe get connected the the internet Chrome OS will become more viable. Yet, like Google TV, the premise behind Chrome OS seems to be before its time. We are not yet ready to have to be connected to the internet to use our computers. Not only is the internet not widely available at decent speeds in many areas of the world but wireless technology also needs to see significant improvements before we can really use a computer that needs to be connected to the internet to function. Nobody wants to buy a thin and light Chromebook only to be restricted to certain areas of their house because that is where they can get wireless signal. Yet for all the futuristic aspects of Google’s OS there seems to be a fundamental misjudgement of the changing times in the hardware space. The market Google is targeting with Chromebooks and the Chromebox are those people who only want to check their emails and maybe do some light perusing of the web. Yet those same people are more attracted to the iPads and galaxy tabs of this world than they are to a Chromebook. Someone who buys a device that looks like a laptop nowadays wants it to have more performance and functionality than a tablet provides and this is arguably the fundamental failure of Chrome OS. It has been implemented in a device that no longer has a place in today’s consumer market, the high-end is now the realm of the ultrabook and the low-end has been cannibalised by tablets.
Google may yet make Chrome OS as success but as it stands it is hard to see it gaining any traction in the market. Netbooks have been largely replaced by tablets and with Google’s OS only running on laptops or desktops it seems hard to see how someone who only uses their computer now and again to browse the internet will want to be restricted to a fixed desktop or a slightly less bulky laptop when a tablet can carry out the exact same purpose. More offline functionality is also a must as people aren’t ready yet to have to be connected to the web to use their computer. Google’s fledgling OS certainly has a lot of growing up to do before it can be seriously considered as a rival to OSX and Windows but as Google showed with android they certainly have the talent to do just that.