Craig Mattson (Personal Website)
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Linux makes headlines...... or does it? (11/07/2009 09:02:49 PM)

googlechromelogo_430How do you get Linux to make the headlines portrayed as the next big thing? Simple. You get one of the worlds biggest internet companies announce that they are releasing a new Operating System based on the Linux kernel. That's certainly what happened at the end of this week and the fanboys from all walks of life are already forming opinions on a not-yet-released Operating System. So I suppose in many ways, I'm obligated to form an opinion and prediction.

First and foremost, the operating system is not promising to be the next Ubuntu (which now appears to be replacing the term "Linux" amongst technology enthusiasts) - nor is it claiming to be an alternative to Microsoft Windows or Macintosh OS X. Simply put, it's a standalone web browser with a few offline applications bundled in (Docs, Calendar etc...). It is aimed at PC's and Netbooks (which I will get into later), so its installation base will probably stem from low-powered hardware to make a functional and fast machine for basic use.

The Operating System itself will basically be an interface between the user and the Google Cloud (which is basically a bunch of web services) with a few modifications, particularly to the security layer of the Linux kernel in an attempt to thwarte viruses and malware. I don't quite understand how you could kill a browser-only operating system, to me - that's just as logical as bricking the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). If the Google Cloud introduces a new service that allows users to login and store their profiles at Google, then a malfunction in the Operating System could almost be fixed instantaneously by a reinstallation of the Operating System itself.

So could something like this work on a PC? Absolutely - given the right environment of course. For instance, you wouldn't have this Operating System in a home as the primary computer - but a student may find the system useful - if the educational institute was to support the platform. Likewise, the uptake in web-based applications replacing client-side applications within SME's can reduce the TCO significantly where a Web Browser is necessary. With one of my clients controlling most aspects of their business online, they could theoretically replace one of the three systems with a web browser only Operating System. Other situations could be Retail Point of Sale Systems whereby a computer is designated to run one application over a network. Significant savings may be available for corporations using web applications.

But why would this be useful now instead of deploying Ubuntu? Well - nothing is stopping Linux systems being deployed to solely run Web Applications (in fact - in some SME's I have worked with, they have!). It's little surprise to find that the concept of Linux (freedom of choice) could be a potential flaw in GUI consistency. The thing about choice and freedom to develop is when someone doesn't like the way a particular application works - it either gets forked or something new ends up being developed. I can only imagine that's why there are sooooo many flavours of Linux. Has anyone tried to use Firefox and aMSN on Ubuntu where Ubuntu has fully Anti-Aliased fonts? Firefox doesn't carry those settings across, aMSN just looks like garbage and Open Office still looks like your typical unfinished Java application.

I believe the critical success with Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X and even various Mobile Phone / Smart Phone devices has been the User Interface. No one wants to be working with a dogs breakfast if they have a choice. If you load any application in Microsoft Windows, you will find many commonalities such as a Menu Bar (with the same fonts used), the same style command buttons, the same style text boxes etc... as long as the developers have chosen to use defaults. Even well-written Java applications look relatively standard. This is the same with Apple as well. A great deal of time goes into presentation of the application to retain consistency overall. For instance, if you want to change settings for an application, you will find them generally in the same place (Tools > Options..., Edit > Preferences etc...). I suppose it's a requirement too to have proper UAT especially when an end user is paying for something - but how many Open Source applications clearly don't have any Project Management letalone conform to some sort of strict SDLC?

acer_aspire_one_400A recent statistic on one of the forums I frequent suggests Microsoft has a marketshare of approximately 90% in the Netbook market. This is probably true - particularly from observations on my weekday commute into Melbourne CBD. The number of Netbook users is pretty high (9" Acer, HP, Asus and Lenovo), and all I have seen run Windows XP. I don't know how anyone can stand Windows XP at a non-standard resolution resembling that of a 14" CRT - but anyway - that's why I have 15.4" with 1680x1050 screen realestate. The common applications open are Word, PowerPoint, Visio and Outlook - so this suggests that Netbooks are being used as Laptop replacements, albeit operating terribly slow. The interesting thing is most of the people with Netbooks are also "suits", so the device is being treated as some form of portable assistant (where I would suspect the user has a PC at work and would perform some form of synchronisation).

If my predictions are right, then the solution to dominating the netbook market (which I believe would be pretty easy to do given the right OS is released) is to design an Operating System that incorporates synchronisation against compatible lightweight applications. I'm not talking about using an Xandros ripoff with Open Office installed, I'm talking about a unique and fast operating system that is visually pleasing to use. The iPhone manages to run a rich GUI on hardware slower than any of these 9" netbooks, so I'm sure something could be done for netbooks as well. A standard Office 2007-compatible should also be designed, as well as an optimised PDF reader and rich multimedia tools. The fact is, you could price a Netbook at the equivalent price of a Windows netbook if the Operating System was something akin to Mac in the visual appearance department as long as the system was also backwards compatible with Windows Applications. If the Operating System supported proper synchronising, then there would be no need for Microsoft Windows XP on these devices. Windows XP is clearly an interim thing that "just works" on netbooks, and I'm sure people would make the switch - much akin to Mobile Phones - as visually pleasing features come along. It's all about making applications suitable for netbooks, rather than using what we have.

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens with Google / Chrome OS especially to follow the impact. While there are certainly advantages to having a standalone web browser, I question how useful the Operating System will be in a home environment if all it is, is a web browser.

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