When Google first announced what it called Chrome OS, back in July, it said it would open source the code “later this year”. Last week it made good on that promise with the release of the code for what is now called Chromium OS, and the first analyses have started rolling in. They're mostly tinged with a vague air of disappointment, as if Chromium OS isn't quite as exciting as people hoped. But might Google be aiming much, much higher – and planning to turn the personal computing sector on its head by offering computers that cost nothing?
Open source is clearly an important part of making that happen: it brings the unit cost of software close to zero. But there's still the small matter of the hardware to be paid for. In fact, costs there can also be brought right down, since Chromium is optimised for netbook form factors. As Google noted at the launch of its new operating system:
First, it's all about the web. All apps are web apps. The entire experience takes place within the browser and there are no conventional desktop applications. This means users do not have to deal with installing, managing and updating programs.
That also means you don't need hard discs or even much RAM. It also emphasised:
Most of all, we are obsessed with speed. We are taking out every unnecessary process, optimizing many operations and running everything possible in parallel. This means you can go from turning on the computer to surfing the web in a few seconds. Our obsession with speed goes all the way down to the metal. We are specifying reference hardware components to create the fastest experience for Google Chrome OS.
“Taking out every unnecessary process, optimizing many operations” also implies that you can use lower-cost processors than before. That just leaves the screen, but costs have been plummeting there, too. I'm no engineer, so I find it hard to come up with an exact build cost for a minimalist Chromium OS netbook, but I imagine we're talking ten or twenty dollars, rather than one or two hundred.
Still, even this small cost has to be paid for if the machines are to be given away, and once more, that's where the Web-based nature of the Chrome OS experience comes in. It would trivial for Google to place advertising not just in search pages, but in the applications themselves. Already, it is rolling out ads to more and more of its services. More significantly, perhaps, it has also brought AdSense ads *inside* a desktop application, Google Earth. That makes ads inside word processors and spreadsheets a much smaller step.
Google needs to look at this new market because it has nowhere else to go if it wants to continue growing (as it must do to keep its shareholders happy). It already totally dominates targeted ads of the kind provided by its AdSense. Display advertising on the Web is the next obvious move, and Google recently bought the company Teracent to do just that:
Teracent's technology can pick and choose from literally thousands of creative elements of a display ad in real-time — tweaking images, products, messages or colors. These elements can be optimized depending on factors like geographic location, language, the content of the website, the time of day or the past performance of different ads.
Note, though, that same technology would also work rather well with the content of Web-based *desktop* applications, which are, in effect, private, miniature Web sites.
People already put up with ads alongside Google search results and in Gmail; I don't think many would think twice about the offer of a completely free netbook that had suitably discreet advertising appearing throughout the system: Google could play on the fact that it has so far treated its user with reasonable respect as far as the intrusiveness of ads go. Google has emphasised that Chromium OS is designed as an ancillary computer, not something that is necessarily in your face all the time, so it's not as if you would be bombarded all day long.
But by reducing the cost of this second computer to zero, it could make sure that millions – maybe billions – of people would always have the lightweight, small form-factor Google netbook to hand when they needed to look up something, check Facebook and Twitter, or even knock out a quick document. The unexpected success of netbooks over the last two years shows there is a market for this new kind of computing; giving away systems for free would take it to the next level. Then, gradually, that instant-on, secure, secondary netbook might become the one you spend most time on, and Google's ad revenues would climb even higher....
So, if Google offered you a fast, light, compact netbook for nothing, in exchange for a few ads appearing here and there as you work, would you accept? Or do you think the price you would pay in terms of the company knowing even more about what you do on an hour-by-hour basis would be just too high?
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