Milking the cash cow

Operating systems have traditionally been a cash cow for software companies because no computer can do without one.

They tie together computer hardware and software, taking care of printing, ensuring that files are stored correctly, that they are accessible when needed, and that user input is processed properly. The complexity of operating systems (OSs) means that there have been few players in the market and the companies have tended to exploit their near-monopolies by charging high prices for their products, and by forcing customers to accept new products they don’t want.

There has been a backlash against these high-handed business practices among computer programmers and users, which has given rise to the phenomenon of programmers creating brilliant software and giving it away to users for free. The free software includes operating systems which are mostly based on Linux, a derivative of Unix, and are being adopted by growing numbers of people.

Users have found that the free Linux operating systems are more than sufficient for their needs and my feeling, confirmed by some experience, is that these products are now good enough for the computing needs of most users. The fact that the majority of people have not been exposed to them, and most likely don’t know they exist, is the reason that there hasn’t been a wholesale migration to free OSs.

In short, there hasn’t been a free OS with a high enough profile to attract the attention of the average user, but this is going to change significantly in the next year. The first week in July saw a lot of excited speculation in the computer world, with the announcement by Google, that they would be producing their own free operating system.

To be known as Google Chrome OS, the new system will be available to users from the second half of 2010. In the next couple of months, it will be a made available to the open source programming community and Google believes that, by this time next year, it should be ready for distribution in new Netbooks, laptops and desktop computers.

Chrome OS is aimed at people who do most of their computing on the Internet and will be designed to get users connected a few seconds after switching their computers on. The actual computer that the user works on will become far less relevant because Chrome OS will be designed to take full advantage of programs running on the Internet and for user data to be stored there, or on the cloud, as Google calls it.

I have no idea what sort of a dent Chrome OS will make in the sales of desktop operating systems but I suspect the fact that a major company is producing a free operating system, may give the free OS movement a lot of momentum. If it works as promised, and I imagine that it most likely will, Chrome could tempt a lot of people into trying it out, especially when you consider the price.

I can’t see my desktop being replaced by a machine running Chrome OS, at least while our Internet connectivity is so expensive. On the other hand, I could see me using a lightweight portable unit for my day to day internetting, and only resorting to the desktop for heavy-duty tasks, such as processing pictures, or whatever.

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