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Where Google's Chrome Needs Some Polish

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How disruptive will Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Chrome OS be? We'll know more today, when executives show off a demo of the operating system at a press event at the company's Silicon Valley headquarters.

The promise of Google's operating system is intriguing. Chrome is to be open source, lightweight, and an efficient gateway to cloud computing applications. Like "Cloud" from Good OS, but on steroids you might say.

And since Chrome is from Google, we're expecting a lot. We're expecting today's demo to be at least worthy of downloading to Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) , Hewlett-Packard, and Asus netbooks. We're expecting it will work well enough to want to see more.

Unfair, you say? Probably, but Google is the one proposing that Chrome OS will be a game-changer and, as investors, we're expecting to see game-changing news.

Why we might not
The trouble with such expectations is that few companies ever meet them, and Google has as much a track record for failure as it does success. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) is a rarity in this sense.

Let's also remember we're talking about a huge project here: a computer operating system. This is new to Google -- the archivist has become the creator. With Chrome, its engineers will be responsible for everything from basic printer drivers to software and Web interface design. Just writing that gives me the shakes; I can't imagine the late nights coders are enduring in Mountain View.

But thanks to the open source movement, much of the needed code might already exist -- which doesn't necessarily erase the magnitude of the project. Getting an operating system right is tough business. Ask Apple, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) , or Red Hat (NYSE: RHT  ) what they think.

When code doesn't catch on
How much is too much to expect four months after a press release? A game-changing software release that's still very much in development would be my guess, especially since we've seen ambitious operating systems come and go before.

Anyone else remember the BeOS? The company founded by former Apple executive and current venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gassee foundered after the Mac maker purchased NeXT in 1996, returning Steve Jobs to the company he co-founded.

Thus it was NeXTSTEP, rather than Be, which became the foundational component of what today we know as Mac OS X. Be lives on as the open-source Haiku operating system.

Watch out for the "e" word, Google
Engineers have long memories, and you can bet that the coders at Google HQ are working overtime to make sure Chrome isn't the next Haiku. But to avoid that fate, The Big G is going to have to do more than make its OS functionally ready. Chrome is going to have to be attractive to developers. It's going to need an ecosystem.

I'll understand if that sounds strange. As a cloud-computing operating system, Chrome's ecosystem is, essentially, the Web. Every bit of software built for the browser is therefore built for Chrome. Except that it isn't that simple. Not all browsers read and present data in the same way. Microsoft's Internet Explorer isn't built for HTML5, for example.

This is why you're seeing Google embed the Chrome browser's WebKit rendering engine everywhere it can, including inside IE. The more users that adopt Chrome's engine, the fewer issues there are likely to be.

Indeed, it's no accident that the browser and the OS share the same name. Rather, the choice is reflective of Google's view that the browser is rapidly becoming the new "runtime" for applications. A runtime is a system that executes code so that software can function. Adobe's (Nasdaq: ADBE  ) AIR is a runtime.

Still confused? Think about how you use (NYSE: CRM  ) . A distant server hosts the software, sure, but there's also Javascript code that executes in the browser.

A more polished Chrome
So of all the things I'm looking for in today's Chrome OS rollout, its tools interest me most. Frankly, I don't know what they will be, or even what they should be. What I do know is that big, hairy compatibility issues could kill Chrome before it has a chance to live.

Good tools, on the other hand, could unite Web developers to Chrome early and keep them loyal. This chance is too important to miss.

But that's my take. Now it's your turn. Do you think Chrome OS will disappoint? Or will Larry and Sergey score a first-round body blow with today's events? Tell us what you think by voting in the poll below. You can also leave a comment to explain your thinking.

Apple and Adobe are Stock Advisor selections. Dell and Microsoft are Inside Value picks. Google and are Rule Breakers recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and options positions in Apple and a stock position in Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy would like very much to have something funny to say here. Who's got a joke to share? Anyone?

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2009, at 4:52 PM, XMFSupercres wrote:

    Notes: I'm a current TMF employee, a former Google engineering intern, and a web developer by trade.

    Google's announcement is not a game changer today, it's a preview of what the game will be 3+ years from now, and evidence that Google is thinking at least that far out and making strides now to own the future.

    Google's shown extreme commitment to the browser with their lightning fast "v8" javascript engine, and their new "closure" javascript tools. They are investing heavily into the browser as an application platform, banking on the no-longer-extreme idea that people will be tranferring more and more traditional desktop apps to the web and more of their data to the cloud. When that happens, a lot of what windows does will become less and less relevant. Who needs to install/uninstall apps when all your apps are on the web? Who needs a built-in file browser when your data is in the cloud? Who needs a media player when we have Netflix and Hulu, or MS Word when we have Google Docs?

    Google is extrapolating from these existing questions and giving us a view of what they think the world of computing will be like in the nearish future - infinitely connected clients with minimal hardware, and the offloading of more and more apps to the cloud.

    Incidentally, operating systems are not new ground for Google - it's well known that they use a custom OS internally - and it's unlikely they'll spend much time on things like print drivers. My guess is it's more likely that ChromeOS will be interoperable with Linux drivers. Additionally, a web-only OS means they are explicitly free of many, possibly most, of the typical OS time holes, like application compatibility and file systems.

    As an aside, considering Google's extremely awkward initial Chrome OS announcement (, I get the sense that information about Chrome OS leaked before they were ready, and they've been playing catch-up since then. This really should have been the first announcement.

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2009, at 4:52 PM, XMFSupercres wrote:
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