Google's announcement that it is working on a lightweight operating system is as much about marketing as it is about technology.
After all, the technology is hardly new: at the heart of Google's Chrome OS lies the Linux kernel; on top of that is Google's existing Chrome browser, running in a new windowing system. But to this lash-up of mostly pre-existing code, Google brings one, invaluable extra: its brand.
Google's name means that people won't need to think twice before buying first netbooks and, later, entry-level PCs, running Chrome OS; they won't need to worry about whether it will be compatible with their files or easy to use.
They will just assume that Google has sorted everything out, because they trust the brand. Some, of course, will be disappointed with details, but the majority will be content with the simplicity of the solution. Google will be aided in this shift because the basic environment in which everything is run is the browser – and anyone can use a browser.
But the long-term consequences of this move are much greater than this relative ease might suggest. With its Chrome OS, Google will make the operating system not just invisible, but irrelevant: the browser becomes the platform.
Netscape tried this a decade ago and failed; Google might succeed because of two important shifts in computing that it has been driving for a while, and which Chrome OS both depends on and will help propagate even more widely.
The first is cloud computing. Already, Google can meet almost all the needs of average users through Web apps like Gmail and Google Docs; others are doubtless under development. Low-cost and easy-to-use Chrome OS netbooks and PCs will offer people more reasons to move their computing into the cloud - and help Google to make more money from the ads they will encounter there.
The second shift is free software, which is now sufficiently mature that Google can use it to do most of the heavy lifting, and without trying to become a full-on operating system company.
The potential loser here is clearly Microsoft, which faces an invasion of its desktop heartland by a challenger that is already well known and totally dominant online. Its loss of market share is unlikely to be dramatic, especially at the high end, but will add to the continuing erosion of Microsoft's power and profits.
Apple, by contrast, will probably be little affected, because brand loyalty is higher – people love their Mac desktops in a way that Windows users do not.
In the world of GNU/Linux, distributions like Ubuntu that are aimed at the general user will find that they have to compete against the powerful Google brand, so life may well get harder for them.
But in one sense, whether it's an existing distro or Chrome OS that achieves a greater market share among general users is irrelevant: either way, Google's latest move is likely to provide a significant boost for open source on the desktop once Chrome OS moves from its current state of vapourware to the inevitable semi-eternal beta.
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- Google to challenge Microsoft with Chrome OS
- Google Chrome OS: We love the cloud
Follow Glyn Moody on Twitter @glynmoody