Google OS could put squeeze on other flavors of Linux

Just when several Linux distributions seemed to be gaining a foothold, the search giant's brand and reputation may soon curtail their success

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.

[ Will Google OS force Microsoft to reinvent Windows? | Savio Rodrigues counts the ways Google helps and hurts open source in InfoWorld's Open Sources blog. ]

Several Linux-based OSes for netbooks are available today, including Canonical's Ubuntu Netbook Remix, GoodOS's gOS 3.1 Gadgets, and Moblin 2.0 beta, which is backed by Intel.

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.

ZaReason, a small systems builder based in Berkeley, Calif., is already considering offering the Chrome OS on its PCs, partly because Google has a good track record in developing open source applications, wrote Cathy Malmrose, CEO of ZaReason, in an e-mail. Today ZaReason offers a choice of Linux distributions, including Ubuntu, with its desktops and laptops.

"As long as Google leaves the OS truly open (and not close it like TiVo does with their Linux), then ZaReason would definitely consider offering it as an option," Malmrose wrote. "Features like a fast browser (Chrome) could be used elsewhere due to the freedoms granted by true open source software."

The Chrome OS doesn't necessarily give Linux more credibility, but it gives it more recognition, Malmrose said. The presence of a heavyweight like Google could apply the pressure needed for other Linux distributions to succeed, she said. "Any competition just makes everyone better. Each distribution will have its own focus, and customers will get to choose which suits them best," Malmrose wrote.

Few details about the Chrome OS are available yet, and it is unclear what users can expect other than tight links to Web-based applications like Google Docs and Gmail.

Questions remain about what the user interface will look like or what sort of hardware driver support will be available. Until those questions are answered, some Linux vendors are taking a wait-and-see approach and using the time to draw the lines of a possible battle with Google.

Canonical, developer of the popular Ubuntu Linux, is trying to better integrate the Web with its OS, said Gerry Carr, chief of platform marketing at Canonical. It will soon start talking up the next version of Ubuntu, version 9.10, which is code-named Karmic Koala.

"We're not going to stop because Google comes out with the OS," Carr said. Linux distributions have suffered in the past from a lack of drivers for hardware, so the company is also focused on ensuring more hardware will work with its OS.

Intel said Moblin's use could expand to include smartphones and set-top boxes. "I think it's important to note that for nearly 25 years now, we've had a goal to ensure we offer the most choice of software, and that the software runs best on our chips. Nothing changes with Chrome et al," Bill Kircos, an Intel spokesman, said via e-mail.

Chrome may eventually become a dominant Linux distribution but it will take time for Google to iron out the kinks, said David Liu, founder of Good OS, which develops the gOS Linux distribution.

"Creating a cool software product is a good thing, but enabling it on a hardware platform is another thing," Liu said.

But in a nod to Chrome's potential, Good OS is already thinking about developing services that could run on top of it, Liu said.

People are well-accustomed to Windows, however, and Microsoft has strong ties with PC makers and a strong distribution channel, he noted.

"People take a long time to adjust to something new," he said. "OEMs will take their time. Developers will take their time."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.