Google’s introduction of Chrome OS, its Linux-based operating system for netbooks, sparked no shortage of questions by reporters and bloggers. You can easily tick off a list of 20 questions and that wouldn’t begin to cover the minutiae and the what-ifs.
Long term: Will Chrome OS be a viable competitor to Microsoft Windows? Offered as an open-source platform, Chrome OS could have a better chance than Ubuntu, Red Hat or other Linux distributions vying to take share from Microsoft; open-source operating systems drive down computer costs.
Near-term: Will Google Chrome OS fork Linux in the same way Google’s Android has been accused of forking Java? That remains to be seen.
Ironically, perhaps one of the more surprising questions centered around the suggestion that Google is forking itself, or more to the point, that Chrome OS will chop off any legs Google was hoping its Android Linux-based mobile operating system would grow.
The point was raised in a research note by Yankee Group’s Joshua Martin, who said the emergence of Chrome OS could derail Android, which is currently only on two phones in the United States (G1 and the myTouch 3G coming in August) but is expected to appear in netbooks and other consumer devices in the future.
“Google… has divided its own customer base,” Martin wrote in a research note. “Now, Chrome OS will be for netbooks, and Android will simply be Google’s mobile platform–which is much less exciting. Consumers won’t get any additional value from owning multiple Google devices.”
The point was further mulled by Saul Hansell of The New York Times, who in a blog post added that Google delights in offering Web services, such as search, Gmail and other Google Apps. But, Hansell asked, is “Google squandering some of what may be the best brand yet created this century by positioning its operating system as cheaper than Windows?”
Differences of opinion on this matter abound. Enderle Group’s Rob Enderle believes an operating system should be free because it is a foundation for the applications and services that run on it. However, he acknowledged that the problem with “free” products is that they don’t get adequate funding for promotion and demand generation. Enderle told eWEEK:
“As we saw with the other Linux platforms the hardware manufacturers don’t promote them either and, in the end, folks don’t buy them. The current ecosystem survives on marketing co-op dollars and direct marketing spending from Microsoft and Intel. Granted, up until recently Microsoft’s marketing efforts were largely a money hole with little value but that has changed. For Google to succeed here they have to be able to maintain their image and drive demand for their products. Like most young technology, and virtually all open source pure play companies, Google doesn’t get marketing and their brand, opportunity and future are all suffering because of this. Someone has to pay for demand generation, and to protect and build brand equity, free right now isn’t doing that. “
Would You Pay for Google Web Services?
Enderle pointed to Apple as the model of a company that knows how to displace a dominant vendor (Microsoft Windows) and hold on to a monopoly (iPod). But let’s put this aside; the idea of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page abandoning all manner of free Web services to sell consumer devices is an anathema.
Hansell also asked: What would happen if the company made the Google name worth paying extra for? Let’s suppose Google decides to charge for its Web services. We’ll leave search out of the question. Buffet tables runneth over in Mountain View, Calif., thanks to Google’s $20 billion in search advertising per year.
By introducing Chrome OS as open source, Google has willfully placed financial responsibilities for the software in the hands of netbook manufacturers, such as Acer, Adobe, Asus, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Toshiba. Google has said these companies are working on building Chrome OS-based computers.
But what if Google began to charge for its Google Apps, not just the $50 per user, per year for the premium version, but even for the use of Gmail by Joe Consumer? Gmail has become invaluable to long-time users who have been using Gmail for five years and keep a wealth of data stored on Google’s geographically displaced servers.
What might Google reasonably expect to charge users? $3 per month? What about Google Apps such as Docs? Would Google charge pennies per file, or X dollars per gigabyte of storage for word processing, presentation and spreadsheets?
Bile brims in throats after reading such travesties. Does Google dare charge us for the things it offered us free for years? That breaks the contract, doesn’t it? Didn’t we, by logging into Google Accounts, agree to let Google serve us ads for the ability to use Web services? That was the deal implicit in us using Gmail, et al, right?
The problem with free is that if you offer Web services free from the start, no price point looks attractive thereafter. Consumers feel ill used, slighted and taken for a ride.
Even if consumers did agree to pay they would call for higher quality of service than Google currently provides and the company still regularly has outages that don’t discriminate between Google’s consumers and its paying customers.
No matter how important Google Web services have become to their users, Google is stuck with free. When you start with free and become really successful with it, you get stuck with free, as Dallas Mavericks owner and blogger Mark Cubannoted.
At what point does the burden of free get too large for even Google to bear?