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Memo to Google: It’s About the Applications, Stupid!

The press is going ga-ga about Google’s latest product announcement, something known as the Chrome operating system, which they consider a potential threat to Microsoft’s dominance in the PC space.

The new operating system is evidently an outgrowth to Android, their Linux-based open source OS for mobile devices and, evidently, netbooks. But the Chrome OS is supposed to take this a step further, with the potential for working on regular desktop computers as well.

Does this mean that Microsoft and, of course, Apple, ought to be shaking in their boots over this pending competition?

For various reasons, the answer is a resounding no. You see, what the media seems to forget is that you don’t buy a computer to run an operating system. The real purpose is, of course, to run the applications you need for work or play. The operating system is basically the container for those applications, and it allows them to communicate with your computer’s peripherals, such as printers and scanners, to provide the full user experience.

If you want to just turn on your computer and restrict yourself to the operating system, you might enjoy the pretty pictures generated by the screen saver, or you can check your files in the Finder — wait the Finder is an application! So is Mail, iCal, Safari and all the rest.

Why do people buy Macs? Well, aside from great looks and excellent customer support, Mac OS X lets you run the applications you want without getting in the way. You don’t have to concern yourself about malware — at least not yet — and driver conflicts and crashes are rare. There’s no need to have an IT person hanging out with Jolt Cola in hand waiting to straighten things out when something breaks.

This is not to say that Mac OS X is perfect, but it takes you closer to a pure computing experience than anything else on the market.

Details about the Chrome OS are still sparse, but we do know a few things. One is that since it’s based on Linux, there will be a solid, robust foundation that has been tested and proven over the years. That’s a good thing, and it also means that security issues shouldn’t be serious. However, there are going to be problems. First and foremost, it will apparently be a very browser-centric platform, focusing on the Chrome browser. You’ll certainly be able to use it for Gmail and any Web-based email system (even Apple’s MobileMe no doubt), plus a decent number of services, including instant messaging, calendars and, with Google Apps, basic productivity software.

All well and good. But what about Microsoft Office? Sure, Google Apps might be able to read basic Office files, but is that going to be sufficient to fill your needs? How about Adobe Photoshop, the staple of the graphics and photographic industries, or Final Cut Pro, used worldwide for movies and TV shows?

In short, what applications, aside from Google’s browser, are going to be available on the Chrome OS? What is Google going to do to provide a robust development environment, or will they expect you to just download something that runs on Linux and manually manipulate it so it’ll be compatible? Honestly, I’m not certain what the game plan is here, so I’m just asking the questions the media has yet to ask.

With a Mac, even if you must run a Windows-only app, you can do so with Boot Camp, so long as rebooting isn’t a problem, or with virtual machines from the likes of such companies as Parallels and VMWare. And, yes, you’ll be able to run Linux too and perhaps even the Chrome OS, if that’s what you want.

The lack of apps is just one issue, and it is apt to be the deal breaker. But there’s yet another, and that’s the peripherals you need. Will Chrome OS come installed in your new netbook — or whatever device runs it — ready to support your printers, scanners, and other devices? Even Microsoft has a whale of a time keeping up with third-party products, witness all the difficulties encountered with the initial release of Windows Vista.

Apple has gotten around much of this by providing support for thousands of printers baked into Mac OS X. Most peripheral makers these days make absolutely certain Mac support is part of the package, and such devices as external hard drives and Flash cards just work without any special software or manual intervention. Can Google promise anything even close? How, for example, will you sync your iPod and iPhone? Tens of millions of Windows users join Mac users in engaging in that simple process every single day using iTunes — which surely won’t be available for the Chrome OS.

The answer is, of course, that they can’t. Putting Chrome OS into a netbook may not present a difficult problem, so long as the machine is used all by itself and makes no external connections other than Wi-Fi or perhaps an Ethernet cable to your cable or DSL modem. The very second you go beyond those limited confines, you’re going to be in deep trouble, unless Google knows something they’ve yet to reveal.

As far as I’m concerned, this is one product that, while it might have potential, is going to wear Google’s famous “Beta” label for quite some time to come.