It was an innocuous question, part of a grander lunchtime chat about life, the Internet, and The Future Way of Things. My coworker was curious about the benefits of open-source--specifically those advantages with a dollar sign preceding them--and naturally thought that the upstart Google operating system could someday attract a huge portion of Microsoft Windows's market share.
Why wouldn't enterprise businesses love the Google solution? The amount of money they would be able to save from the reduced desktop licensing requirements would be large enough to transform a CFO's eyes into saucers, Roger Rabbit-style. Similarly, entities that rely on a variety of customized programs and applications to conduct business could weave these elements into the open-source architecture of Chrome OS.
Given that Chrome OS is going to be heavily focused toward a Web-based platform for applications and file hosting, it's only fitting that it find a new home in the world of the enterprise--where one doesn't have a desktop PC so much as a virtualized environment that can be accessed using any piece of hardware in the office. A hard drive crash doesn't much matter if your data is sourced on the cloud.
So let's roll out the red carpet and prep the TV hosts for the big unveiling of Chrome OS in big busin... or not. There's one reason, and one reason only, why an open-source desktop isn't going to succeed in the consumer or enterprise markets: Microsoft was there first.
It's a funny state of affairs: When it comes to technology, we see big-name companies ping-pong between crippling failure and extraordinary success all the time. Nintendo? Completely screwed the pooch with the Gamecube--an absolutely horrendous system that was beaten back by the market faster than you can say "Luigi's Mansion." Yet, up comes the company from the bowels of its R&D labs to produce the Wii, otherwise known as, "the best-selling console of 2009."
Not a gamer? Consider Apple, then--a company that suffered setback after setback in the late 1990s after the relative success of its early hardware launches. Yet, one iMac later, and Apple revolutionized its product lines with a focus on aesthetics to become a significant market driver. Not in computing, per se--at least, not compared to Windows machines--but in its slew of i-themed devices that all borrowed the same design concepts of its initial iMac.
Yet, here sits Windows: untouched. It's arguable that Linux and OSX, and even Chrome OS, all offer features that outpace those found on Microsoft's operating systems--especially less-than-impressive revisions like Vista, which practically require a service pack before they're truly ready for desktop use. But I'm just speaking from the standpoint of someone who sits in front of the keyboard. For the person behind the ledger, it's clear that open-source is the de facto winner.
The issue is that Windows has reached, and blown apart, the critical mass it needs to ensure its own longevity regardless of the competition. Interestingly enough, it's even superseded Microsoft's own revisions to the software--a number of businesses will still use Windows XP even though two iterations of the operating system have taken place over the last four years.
How has this happened? Complacency, mixed with a touch of costs. Businesses in today's economy are a bit loathe to spend the required money upgrading systems (both in licenses and labor) when there's no prevailing reason to do so beyond security concerns. And even then, depending on the nature of the use, even a Windows XP workstation can be locked down to all but essential business functions.
As for complacency, there are enough mission-critical Windows systems that "just plain work" as to make a business uncomfortable to consider jumping even to an upgrade of Windows itself. I don't even want to fathom the potential compatibility issues and internal restructuring that would come up should a large enterprise business try to readjust itself to a cloud-based platform like Chrome OS. I'm not saying it's impossible, I just don't think IT decision makers will consider it a possibility.
It's kind of a killer catch-22: For a new operating system to gain a significant share of the market, it has to reach enough popularity to warrant an investigation (or a switch) toward porting software. But to reach this critical mass, the software has to be available and working in order to give a person or a business a reason to cross the threshold. No matter its software faults, Microsoft holds the ace: Windows is the best solution for enterprise environments because it's always been.
What is Chrome OS (or Linux, or OSX) going 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.