Google Chrome OS Not On System Builders' Radar

For a product that's launching in the second half of the year, Google's Chrome OS isn't on the radar of system builders to any great extent. Even those that appreciate Chrome OS' potential to shake things up in the operating systems market believe it'll take a while to have a meaningful impact.

As of mid-April, Google says it's still on track to bring Chrome OS hardware to market sometime between June and January. The list of partners helping Google to bring Chrome OS-powered hardware to market hasn't changed either: It still consists of Acer, Adobe, ASUS, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Toshiba.

Here's what else we know: Chrome OS will run on X86 and ARM processors, it's designed for netbooks with solid state drives and it represents Google's effort to re-think the operating system in a Web application-centric way. But at this point, that's all Google is saying about Chrome OS. "We have nothing new to announce at this time," a Google spokesperson told CRN in mid-April.

Given the dearth of information on Chrome OS, system builders haven't even begun to think about the business case for Chrome OS. And they're not surprised that customers aren't hounding them for details on forthcoming Chrome OS hardware.

Sponsored post

"Our salespeople aren't getting a lot of inquiries about Chrome OS from customers, and they haven't even heard of anyone asking for it," said Kent Tibbils, vice president of marketing at ASI, a Fremont, Calif.-based system builder.

Bob Nitrio, CEO of Ranvest Associates, an Orangevale, Calif.-based technology consultant, says the sparse information Google has provided about Chrome OS isn't enough to form an interpretation of where it will fit into the solution stack. "Chrome OS isn't a topic of discussion with our clients. They've been in the Windows world so long that it's not even in the conversation," Nitrio said.

"If Chrome OS emerges as a viable OS, I would certainly take a look. But for now, my clients aren't really concerned about what new OS is on the horizon," Nitrio added.

Market forces within the system builder channel are also contributing to the lack of buzz about Chrome OS.

Although many large system builders and local OEMs have built their businesses on the desktop, and continue to maintain their desktop businesses, a growing number are shifting their marketing to servers and storage. Desktop platforms don't occupy the same front-and-center channel mindshare that they used to.

These days, system builders are going after solutions opportunities in virtualization, white box SAN solutions, HPC, and private clouds, according to Joe Toste, vice president of marketing at Minneapolis-based Equus Computing.

"I know of no other system builders investing effort in developing new desktop platforms based on a new OS, whether it's Chrome OS, Ubuntu, or whatever," said Toste. "Sure, we're bending sheet metal and trying to new create interesting desktop form factors. But I hear no ISVs asking us to validate applications for Chrome OS systems."

NEXT: Are System Builders Invited To The Chrome OS Party?

For now, Google appears to be focusing the bulk of its energies on giving OEMs a branded, Linux-based alternative to Windows and Mac OS. Chrome OS may find its way onto system builders' radar in the future, but the channel isn't holding its breath in anticipation of that coming to pass.

"Google is engaging with the big guys with Chrome OS, and they haven't come down to the channel yet. I don't think they'll be reaching out to system builders for a while," said Todd Swank, vice president of marketing at system builder Nor-Tech, Burnsville, Minn.

Chrome OS And The Future

When Google unveiled Chrome OS last July, the netbook phenomenon was in full swing, and the company made netbooks its initial development focus. Since then, however, netbooks' popularity has waned considerably as their limitations have become glaringly apparent. The arrival of the iPad, and its viability in a broader range of use cases than netbooks could ever hope to address, could hasten netbooks' demise in the marketplace.

As a result, Google is now working to optimize Chrome OS for tablet PCs. In March, developers posted a concept UI of a Chrome OS powered tablet device to the Website that features a screen of between 5 and 10 inches, tab navigation, and a virtual keyboard similar to that of the iPad.

Google is already developing an Android based tablet, but has suggested it may converge Android and Chrome OS development at some point in the future. For now, Google is saying only that it's kicking the tires on Chrome OS in various hardware form factors.

"Google Chrome OS is still in development and we are constantly experimenting with various user interfaces to determine what designs would produce the best user experience," a Google spokesperson told CRN.

Andrew Kretzer, director of sales and marketing at Bold Data Technology, a Fremont, Calif.-based system builder, says Chrome OS looks capable of powering not only the coming wave of tablet devices, but also desktop PCs.

"It seems like a lot of players believe the tablet is here to stay, and the content is out there for them," Kretzer said. "As the desktop gets thinner with nettops, you're going to need an OS to run them, and Chrome OS is definitely going to be in the running."

Jon Bach, president of Puget Systems, a Kent, Wash.-based system builder, says he's excited about Chrome OS from a personal standpoint but isn't sure if it'll have much impact on his sales to businesses. Puget Systems' product mix focuses on higher performance laptops and desktops, and that hardware would be limited by Chrome OS, he said.

"I think Chrome OS stands to grab market share with embedded devices, but not with laptops and desktops," Bach said. "We may offer it as a free option on our laptops, just as we currently offer Ubuntu. But I don't expect many takers."

NEXT: Chrome OS: Disrupter Or Pretender?

Microsoft built its Windows empire by making its software more profitable for developers, Tier 1 vendors and system builders. Google doesn't seem to have similar designs for Chrome OS at the moment, according to system builders.

If Chrome OS ends up being mainly an embedded OS for tablets, and that would put it more into the wheelhouse of OEMs than system builders, which would put a crimp on its role in the channel, notes ASI's Tibbils. "These types of embedded systems aren't the type of markets system builders are typically involved in," he said.

For the channel, supporting Chrome OS looms as another potential obstacle, Tibbils said. "Will it be like Linux, where you need in-house expertise for supporting the product and drivers and everything else? Support is a big question with Chrome OS that Google needs to answer," he said.

Still, despite the preponderance of questions around Chrome OS, some system builders say its impact will be felt in ways that don't directly affect their bottom line but could nonetheless have a positive market impact.

Nor-Tech's Swank is one who believes the significance of a new operating system hitting the market shouldn't be underestimated. "There was actually a time when I thought it would never happen again," he chortled.

"Obviously, Microsoft has been the dominant player for a long time, but competition does everyone good. If Chrome OS is good, that may prompt Microsoft to bring down pricing on Windows," Swank added.

It's a point worth pondering: Perhaps Chrome OS is another Google effort to exert a gravitational pull on a Microsoft-dominated market. Although Microsoft scoffs at suggestions that Google Docs is eating into its Office market share, the fact that Microsoft is introducing free, cloud based versions of Office apps with Office 2010 shows that it's aware of the threat Google poses.

Kretzer of Bold Data Technology believes that one of Chrome OS's biggest impacts on the channel will be to send another wake-up call to Microsoft.

"Microsoft is getting harder to work with and becoming a larger part of the tax on our systems. Chrome OS actually will attract a different segment of PC buyers, and we're open to just about anything that allows us to differentiate ourselves," Kretzer said.