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Is Google Chrome OS a turning point or yawner?

Nothing fuels the tech press like wars. So I have no doubt that we will see an endless string of reports from the battlefield over the next many months on the struggle between Google and Microsoft for world dominance. Wake me up when it’s all over.

Google’s announcement of its intention to field a Linux based, browser-centric operating system for netbooks and eventually most client machines comes at a strange time in the history of operating systems. Now, operating systems matter less than ever.

Once upon a time, your choice of operating system dictated your choice of processor, which often meant your choice of hardware vendor. It also dictated what applications were available to you and from whom. The only mainstream operating system that you can still say that about is the Mac OS.

Chrome OS will do none of those things. It will run on all the same hardware that Windows runs on, plus ARM-based systems. It will run browser-based applications, which will also run on any other browser. Undoubtedly, Google Apps will work really well on Chrome OS. Google is also suggesting it will deliver better security, easier configuration and quicker performance than the incumbents.

History (especially of desktop Linux) suggests that it will have to be a quantum leap better at all those things to make a dent. We can only hope they achieve that, since regardless of who delivers those attributes, they are desirable. But more to the point, Chrome OS comes at a moment when desktop operating systems are themselves in danger of becoming a big so what.

By the time Chrome OS shows up, desktop chips will likely have hardware-assisted virtualization. Increasingly, hypervisors will determine the performance characteristics of the system – how well they manage memory, how well they interact with CPUs, etc. With storage and applications increasingly being network-driven, the operating system’s chief function may well become the user interface. How security functions will be parceled out between hypervisor and operating system is perhaps an open question, so that function may still be crucial.

Nonetheless, the world Chrome OS makes its debut in will be one where operating systems can be swapped willy-nilly, where applications don’t care what OS they run on, and where, frankly, users may not either.

Google’s main impact may well be nontechnical, forcing Microsoft to drop prices and (just) maybe to improve Windows. Call me a contrarian or curmudgeon, but I think this development is more important to shareholders of both combatants than IT managers. How about it, CIOs? Game changer or no biggie?

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