What a year for Google! Though I suppose one could really say that almost any year. Not to sound like a wide-eyed admirer or uninformed fanboy, but it seems as if Google always has something grand up its sleeve. But instead of waxing nostalgic about all of "The Goog's" fancy Web-based services or search refinements or what-have-you, I think it's important to note just how dramatically Google has made its mark on the open-source world in 2009.
Yes, I'm talking about Chrome. Or Android. Or Chrome-Android. You know, those two independent-but-not-really operating systems that are different yet similar enough to warrant Google splitting them with a wink-and-a-nod that they'll likely be combined at some grand point in the future.
I'll simplify. Android is the mobile version of Google's open-source OS. Chrome is the desktop/laptop/netbook/who-knows version. Sort-of. Android is in the process of spilling over to tablets and has already made the jump to netbooks. Chrome is currently under-wraps at Google, save for the open-source variant Chromium OS which is free for the taking, building, and installing.
Confused? I wouldn't be surprised. For all the intelligence packed into the dark recesses of Google's worldwide campuses, the company doesn't have a walk-in-the-park path to victory in the mobile, desktop, or laptop markets with its bevy of open-source operating systems. Here's why:
It's no secret that Google sticks to this kind of product development cycle: release, release, release, adapt, integrate. That's all well and good in the world of Web services--mashing together one of the many Google Apps into another product (like the widespread integration of Google tasks) is hardly confusing for patrons of said service. However, operating systems are another story. It's bad enough that we have 35 different versions of Windows on the market, each with different chunks of accessibility for those willing to pony up for additional features. Chrome, Android, Chromium... how will an average person ever be able to tell the difference between an Android-branded netbook and a Chrome-branded netbook?
For an operating system to succeed in the minds of consumers, it should come branded as a single, unified platform --Google OS. Or Google Chrome. Or Google Android. Take your pick, but Google should really shoot for integrating (or splitting) its platforms as quickly as possible. Multiple, differently named incarnations of operating systems across the same devices is a headache, not a beta test.
Word on the street is that Google's looking to T-Mobile as the big carrier for its new Nexus One phone. I can't really criticize T-Mobile, having never been a customer myself. However, Consumer Reports has noted that T-Mobile's service is a step behind both Verizon's and Sprint's. Although the phone will allegedly ship unlocked if you purchase it online sans T-Mobile's involvement, the rumored GSM capabilities of said device physically restricts its use to either T-Mobile's or--get ready--AT&T's networks (and no 3G support confirmed for AT&T, either). Unless the Nexus One has the innate power of Apple's iPhone to compel purchases regardless of poor carrier support, and I don't think it does, then I'm not sure consumers will be willing to make the jump to Google's flagship Android phone "just because."
After all, what good is a phone with all the features in the world if the carrier can't deliver enough bandwidth or coverage to support it?
Apple has a clear victory when it comes to the digital supply chain for its phones. Apple makes the OS. Apple makes the iPhone. End of story. Google, on the other hand, is predominantly in the business of working on the Android operating system. This operating system, in turn, has to fit a variety of phones with an equal variety of sizes and internal requirements. Thus, different versions of the Android operating system support different phones. And according to Macworld , this is a pretty big issue for Android developers: "A platform with many versions of the software, and more to come, worries developers, who are not interested in having to tweak their applications for all the different versions."
Let's face it. Chrome just isn't Microsoft Windows . Startling revelation, I know, but hear me out. There are no applications for Chrome, save for those you would otherwise find sitting in the cloud. That eliminates a wide chunk of the available software market for you to play with. And even though Chrome looks to be targeting netbook devices for the time being, that's not to say that there aren't a wide variety of free, open-source, and offline software tools that can extend the functionality of your netbook beyond what you could otherwise find as a Web app currently.
Simply put, will there be enough useful Web apps come Chrome's big debut to warrant a device that depends solely on their existence? And will software developers elect to port their existing applications into a cloud format?
Netbooks might seem inexpensive on their faces, but to fully access the power of a Chrome-based device, you'll likely want to be jacked into the Internet in some capacity. That's easy enough to do in the privacy of your own home, with your Ethernet cords sprawling all over the place and your Wireless-N Wi-Fi cloud spewing into all corners of the town. Now, what about when you're on the road? Accessing the Internet is going to cost you some kind of data plan from one of the major carriers. If you don't pony up, then you're stuck with offline versions of Chrome's Web apps.
Sans a full version of the Chrome OS to play around with, I can only speculate as to the strength of Chrome's offline environment. And I'm not really in the mood to speculate with such few facts to go around . Instead, consider this: if you're a heavy data user (four-hour plane flight, anyone?), you're going to be doing a lot of synchronization between your offline PC and your new Google cloud storage. To that end, Chrome better have a great sync system for giving you access to your mission-critical files when you're not online--and you had better remember what it is you need to work on prior to jumping off the grid, else you find yourself with a perfectly functional Web-based netbook... and nothing to do.
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!