Sometimes the smartest and most popular kid at school simply falls on his face. Google Chrome OS could very well turn out to be that kid.
Will Chrome OS be the promising upstart that fails to thrive in the real world? It's much too early to tell, but here are five reasons that Chrome OS could fail:
(For an opposing view, read "5 Reasons Chrome OS Will Succeed" by my esteemed, but misguided, colleague Jared Newman.)
1. Netbooks aren't the world
Netbooks may be important, but they remain a tiny part of the world's PC sales. Google's bet is predicated on strong demand for weak computers. It also takes advantage of a kink in Microsoft's armor: MS actually needs to sell its operating systems while Google can, for now, afford to just give Chrome away.
However, operating systems have been given away for years now and Microsoft has persisted. Linux accounts for about 1 percent of the OS market today, and has already lost the battle for netbooks. And there is a reason for that: It isn't Windows.
Google is counting on users of small computers not being tied to specific applications and being willing to accept low cost and, perhaps, ease of use over a more familiar and more powerful environment.
Some doubtless are, but enough to really challenge Microsoft? Not anytime soon.
2. Microsoft Can Shoot to Kill
I'm Steve Ballmer and here's what I say: Windows 7 NB (for netbooks) will be free through all of 2010. Starting right now. Anything Google can do, Microsoft can–at least theoretically–do better. Google wants to give away a netbook operating system? So can Microsoft.
It will be hard for regulators to complain as Microsoft is now reacting to a powerful competitor's frontal assault on Windows. And placing and end date on the freebie–which can always be extended–allows MS to charge once Chrome is vanquished.
But, does Microsoft even have to do this? No. There is strong evidence–Linux on netbooks, for example–that Microsoft can still successfully charge for what other's give away.
Do not underestimate what can happen when Microsoft gets mad. The company's biggest enemy in recent years has been itself. A new external threat may help Ballmer & Co. sharpen their thinking and respond like an angry immune system to isolate and overwhelm a foreign organism, like Google.
3. Google Docs is the best they can do
So far, Googles efforts at creating cloud applications have been pretty feeble. Look at all the things Google Docs don't do that people need, at least occasionally. Google needs to prove that applications-as-a-service can match those users install. So far, it hasn't come close.
Google's cloud computing strategy so far is "applications lite," which may be fine for occasional use, just like a netbook, but don't meet enough needs to be a real solution.
4. Chrome isn't a "real" operating system
If I were building Chrome, I'd do everything possible to hide the operating system and hope users don't notice what's been left out.
But is that possible? At what point must something that looks and acts like an operating system be presented to users? How much functionality can be sacrificed to provide ease-of-use? Google describes Chrome almost as though an operating system can do all its work behind-the-scenes. I am not sure this is as possible as Google might like to believe.
The closer Chrome comes to being a "real" OS, the more Linux-y it will become. Oops! A one-way ticket on the Voyage to the Bottom of the Market awaits.
5. Compatibility matters
Compatibility, both hardware and software was the major reason why the world anointed Microsoft its King of Computing. You may not remember the days of incompatible word processors, spreadsheets, and file systems, but I do.
Microsoft became a monopoly because a single vendor could best meet the needs of the largest number customers by imposing standards. Customers voted Microsoft the winner and they like not having to worry about compatibility issues.
My sense is that Chrome will be a lowest-common-denominator operating system for computers so small and inexpensive as to be essentially disposable.
It is true such a computer will do 80 percent of what I need to accomplish each day, but the other 20 percent requires specialized software, sometimes specialized hardware, and maybe more horsepower than a netbook can possess.
Compatibility really matters and while Chrome's world may be complete as far as it reaches, there is always more. That's why Windows, frustrating as it may be, will prevail. The "20" in the 80/20 Rule matters a lot more than proponents of "80 is good enough" like to think.
The example I use, and this applies equally to Macintosh, is the large number of specialized apps that exist only for Windows. They could be written for Mac or Linux but because Windows is so dominant, developers see no reason to build for other platforms.
I am about to buy a netbook primarily to replace a Windows laptop for carry-around use with an application that doesn't require a lot of horsepower, but for which only Windows software is available.
Chrome will have to become more popular than I can today imagine for this software to be ported over anytime soon. Some people just need Windows and it will be a long time before Chrome can negate that.
I am not predicting Chrome's doom even before it starts shipping, but it's important to think about the challenges any new operating system faces. They are considerable and, so far, no one has come close to clearing them. (Even Microsoft, some will say).