Google has upped the ante and challenged Microsoft’s dominance of the software industry by promising to develop its own streamlined operating system (OS).Google Chrome OS will be an open-source, "lightweight" OS, set to be available in the second half of 2010. Barely more than a boot mechanism topped by a Windows-like graphical user interface running on a Linux kernel, it will strip out much of the complexity of other operating systems. Instead, it will be designed primarily to quickly channel portable devices straight into web access via Google’s Chrome web browser, which was first unveiled in September 2008.Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management at Google and Linus Upson, Google engineering director, said that other OSs were designed in an era when there was no web.“We’re designing the [Chrome] OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds,” they wrote in a blog post, revealing Google's OS plan. “The user interface is minimal and most of the user experience takes place on the web.”Google’s strategy is clear in pushing people to use its own web applications, including mail, storage, simple Office-type documents (word processor, spreadsheets, presentation and so on) and maps, available through the cloud computing model. It may also use its Google Gears application programming interface to provide the option of hosting those applications offline.The company has specifically targeted Chrome OS at netbook users, and has so far offered little detail. But in designing an OS capable of only running applications in the cloud, Google may have limited its appeal to corporate users.“Will Chrome OS make it into the enterprise? That depends if the enterprise is going to change,” said Mike Davis, senior analyst at Ovum. “It has real potential for any organisation whose staff are highly mobile and using netbooks already, but most businesses remain wired infrastructure and desktop-based, and do not want to send all their stuff over the internet.”Previously, Google has delivered services such as web maps, webmail and the Chrome browser, initially targeting the consumer market, noted Ray Valdes, research vice president at analyst Gartner, in a blog posting. "It will be years (three to five) before [Chrome OS] has any impact on the enterprise."Though using Google web apps is cheaper than owning software licences outright, application performance is heavily dependent on the reliability of the internet, and the constant availability of the servers hosting Google’s web applications.Google’s assertion that users "don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates – it [security] should just work,” may also cause concern to IT leaders, if only because of its vagueness.Google has not outlined how it will address the security of the physical device, the applications or the internet communications, said Davis.And hackers write malicious software specifically to target OSs they know have the highest number of users – currently Microsoft Windows – but that could change.“The security of the cloud is actually quite good and is backed by Google having multiple, very large datacentres for storage – you don’t have the problems with the local C: drive or offloading data to memory sticks, for example,” he said. “If the OS has less bloatware, it may also have fewer security holes, but you have to remember that the bigger the dartboard, the more likely hackers are to throw things at it, as evidenced by Apple’s OS X for the Mac.”That said, a simple OS that offers users limited control over their own application environments may prove attractive to companies looking to scale down their own IT support, almost harking back to the old days of the thin client computing model where dumb terminals accessed applications and storage resources on a central server or mainframe.Nor is it certain that consumers or business users will prefer Google’s Chrome OS as opposed to other operating systems, Microsoft-owned or otherwise. Many existing netbooks, including the top-selling Asus EEE PC and Acer Inspire brands, already use streamlined versions of Linux. However, with its large user base for Google Mail, Google Docs and other web applications, Google may become the preferred Linux variation, not least because its popularity will inspire software developers to build new applications for the platform.Experts are under no illusion that Google has effectively declared war on Microsoft, but the Chrome OS will have to be very good to displace Windows Vista or the forthcoming slimmed-down Windows 7 OS from desktop and notebook PCs. Microsoft is also experimenting with web-based applications of its own.“People use Windows primarily because Microsoft pays hardware manufacturers such as Dell a lot of money to pre-load it – and this is the big agenda here. Google is gunning for Microsoft and Microsoft is gunning for Google because it wants a bigger share of the search engine market,” said Davis.
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