Much of the discussion around Google's new PC operating system has focused on a looming battle with Windows, but the biggest losers could be other Linux OSes that have been enjoying some moderate success on netbooks, industry analysts said.
Google announced late Tuesday that it is developing the Chrome OS, a lightweight operating system based on Linux and geared for people who do much of their computing on the Web. The software will eventually run on PCs, but before that it will appear first in netbooks in the second half of 2010, Google says.
The Linux distributions provide easy access to Web applications from the home screen and are designed to boot up quickly. Netbooks, which initially were too small and low-cost to run a full-fledged Windows OS, provided an opportunity for Linux to establish itself in personal computers, an area where it struggled for years to achieve a mainstream role.
But just when some Linux distributions seemed to be gaining a foothold, Google may soon curtail their success. The strength of its brand, and its reputation as a company that builds sleek and easy-to-use products, means it could steamroll over the other Linux candidates, said Joshua Martin, senior analyst at the Yankee Group.
Consumers will be drawn to a brand they recognize and that they associate with efficient online services, rather than to lesser-known names like Ubuntu and Moblin, Martin said. Google's reputation for creating popular online services may also encourage PC makers to adopt the OS in netbooks, he said.
Other Linux distributions still haven't been widely successful in netbooks, setting the bar low for Google's Chrome OS to succeed, said Al Gillen, program vice president at IDC.
"With consumers, who are less likely to be concerned about track record and commercial support, Google Chrome OS could do better than other distros," Gillen said.
There is also a high level of fragmentation in the netbook market, with multiple versions of Linux installed on different machines, a weakness that Google could exploit.
Ultimately, however, end-users will decide whether the Google OS will succeed. Linux-based netbooks have seen slow adoption, with many consumers preferring the familiarity of Windows. Over the past few quarters, around 90 percent of netbooks in mature markets, and as many as 70 percent in developing countries, have shipped with Windows, according to Gartner.
A battle will take place among Chrome and the other Linux distributions, but together they could also create a dent in Microsoft's Windows franchise. Chrome could help to give Linux more recognition on the desktop, creating an easier path for other distributions, according to some Linux providers.