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Analysis: the two fatal flaws in Google Chrome OS

Why Google's desktop operating system will fail

A lack of flexibility will doom Google's latest ego trip to the dustbin of history. Here's why Google Chrome OS is destined to fail.

The Google Chrome OS is here - sort of. This week, Google was kind enough to give the world a sneak peek at its nascent desktop operating system. And after months of speculation (and more than a few bogus screenshot galleries), I can finally say that I've seen the future... and it's not Google Chrome OS.

The preceding statement should come as no surprise to readers of my Enterprise Desktop blog. I came to a similar conclusion months ago. When news of the existence of a Google OS project first leaked out, I gave it an ice cube's chance in hell of succeeding. Now, after watching a sometimes touchy-sounding crew from Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters walk us through the ins and outs of the Chrome OS, I'm more convinced than ever that my original assessment was right on the money.

Fatal flaw No. 1: The Linux foundation

First, there's the core architecture. A derivative of Linux, the Chrome OS builds on Linus Torvald's popular open source foundation to create a lightweight, web-oriented desktop environment. However, it also inherits that platform's many warts, including spotty hardware compatibility.

From power management to display support, Linux has long been a minefield of buggy code and half-baked device driver implementations. Google recognizes this fact and, in a page out of the Apple Macintosh playbook, has taken the draconian measure of allowing the Chrome OS to be distributed exclusively on a series of as-yet-undisclosed netbook-like devices.

It's a move born of desperation. Google knows it can't possibly establish a viable hardware ecosystem and still meet its self-imposed release deadline of "mid-2010". So rather than do the hard work of courting device vendors and building certification processes, Google is taking the easy way out by micromanaging which systems will be allowed to ship with the Chrome OS and then dumping responsibility for the rest of the ecosystem onto the open source community.

Fatal flaw No. 2: The web user interface

Then there's the user interface. Google looks at the world through the prism of a web page. So it comes as no surprise that the primary interface to the Chrome OS is... Google Chrome, as in the Google browser.

Unlike a traditional OS, there's no desktop. The "applications" running under the Chrome OS are really just interactive web pages, with the Chrome browser's tabs serving to separate and organise them visually on the screen. Basic configuration tasks, like defining Wi-Fi settings, are handled via Chrome OS-hosted pop-up windows, while a simple status bar-like strip at the top of the display informs you about battery life, connectivity status, and so on.

Sadly, none of the above UI constructs is particularly original or compelling. The tabbed interface and "dockable" favourites are clearly derivative of Mac OS X and/or Windows (depending on whom you ask), as are the status icons and pull-down applications menu. In fact, nothing about the Chrome OS UI jumps out as innovative. Rather, it simply replaces one set of metaphors (Start menu, taskbar/Dock, system tray) with a bunch of webified equivalents.

And though I can certainly appreciate the advantages of doing away with those heavy legacy OS windowing layers - web content is lighterweight and easier to isolate from a security standpoint - it also serves to limit the environment's overall utility.

NEXT: An inflexible OS >>

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