Ubuntu's maker: Chrome OS 'no slam dunk' just because Google announces it

Canonical says building an OS is 'harder than putting a new feature on a search engine'

Ubuntu's maker, Canonical Ltd., is defiant that it can maintain its edge in the desktop Linux space despite Google Inc.'s upcoming Chrome operating system.

Google may possess brand recognition and engineering resources that dwarf the 200-employee, reported $30-million-yearly-revenue Canonical, but Chrome OS's ascent "is no slam dunk just because you make an announcement," says Gerry Carr, marketing manager for Canonical.

Carr told Computerworld today that building a user-friendly operating system is "harder than putting a new feature on a search engine."

Carr said he hadn't seen Google's blog post Wednesday night listing nine partners, mostly PC and chip makers, that have signed on to build Chrome OS-based products.

"You know as well as I that it is really easy to sign a partnership," Carr said.

Introduced less than five years ago, Ubuntu reigns among Linux desktop distributions, though its market share remains a tiny fraction of Microsoft's Windows.

A cut-down version called Ubuntu Netbook Remix is also a leading OS for netbooks, with Hewlett-Packard Co., Toshiba Corp. and Dell Inc. all shipping Ubuntu-based netbooks, Carr said.

Netbooks running Chrome OS won't appear until the second half of 2010, which Carr noted is a "long way off."

In the meantime, Canonical intends to keep pace technology-wise, says Carr. For instance, on Google's promise that Chrome will get users surfing the Web within seconds of turning their netbook on, Carr said that the 10.04 version of Ubuntu Netbook Remix due next spring will be able to boot netbooks such as Dell Inc.'s Inspiron Mini 9 in 10 seconds, down from 25 seconds today.

While Ubuntu is moving towards making the Web and desktop "more seamless," building a true desktop OS -- as opposed to Chrome OS's Web-oriented one -- remains Canonical's main goal.

"There is a still a lot of computing you and I do offline," Carr said. "We want to be the volume mass market leader [in Linux]. For developing countries [without good wireless connectivity], that means it's important for us to be extremely good while offline."

Dell was conspicuously missing in the list of firms working on a Chrome netbook. The company said earlier this year that one-third of its Inspiron Mini 9 netbooks were shipping with Ubuntu, and that the return rate for those was as low as for Windows XP models.

Carr said Dell and Canonical enjoy a "great relationship," in part because of Dell's emphasis on direct online sales, bypassing the retail channel that has been so unfriendly to Linux.

Some analysts, such as Jeffrey Orr of ABI Research, say Chrome OS will likely prove to be a better product than Google's existing smartphone OS, Android.

While it will contribute to the already-fragmented Linux landscape by adding one more version, Chrome OS will mainly serve as a rising tide that lifts all Linux boats, including Ubuntu, Orr said.

Mainstream consumers "buy brands they are already familiar with today," he said.

Moreover, Linux's "open model of development lacks a cheerleader," Orr said. "Ubuntu's great, but who's the vendor carrying the message, creating the compelling application [such as with Google Apps.]"

Carr echoed the rising-tide argument, while hinting that Chrome's main target may be Windows, not Ubuntu.

"This is a complex space, it's more than simply Google trampling in our garden," he said.

While companies such as Freescale Semiconductor Inc. acknowledged that they had found out about Chrome OS several months ago, Carr said he'd heard only unconfirmed rumors via hardware partners. "Taiwan's a small place," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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