Google's Chrome OS is no threat to apps stores... yet

You know by now that Google wants to crack the operating system market with Chrome OS. Plenty of column inches and blog posts have been written about its chances against Microsoft's Windows, particularly in the fledgling netbook space. (In short, not good.)

But what's really striking to me is what Google ultimately wants to do with Chrome OS - or rather, what it wants Chrome OS to do to the mobile internet.

Take Vic Gundotra, Google's engineering VP, who said at last month's Mobilebeat conference in San Francisco that app stores - the current darling of the mobile content world - do not represent the future of the mobile industry. Instead, we will get all our apps from the web via "incredibly powerful browsers".

His reasoning is that app stores are, for the most part, limited by the OS they're tied to (presumably including Google's Android Marketplace), and that the current collection of fragmented app stores will give way to a web-based experience where downloading apps isn't necessary. All your apps will be hosted on the network.

What does this have to do with Chrome OS? It's based on the same principle. Like Android, it's a Linux-based OS. But unlike Android, Windows and Mac OS X, it's also designed with web-based apps in mind. In other words, it's an OS for the cloud computing era. Which means it has the potential to seriously drive traffic for mobile broadband operators, according to iSuppli, which says shipments of wireless netbooks (the segment Chrome OS is targeting, with the first products expected to ship in the second half of next year) will more than triple by 2012 to 36.3 million units.

It's a compelling proposition - but one that's not going to be the future of mobile for some time.

The obvious top hurdle will be Microsoft's current domination of the netbook space, which is in part by virtue of its domination of the PC space. And part of the reason for that is simple customer inertia. For all the complaints about Microsoft's bug-prone software, it's still the most widely used OS on the planet, and thus an OS most consumers are familiar with. And most consumers being non-tech savvy, they tend to stick with what they know. Odds are, if they own a Windows-based PC or a laptop, they're going to get a compatible netbook.

The same dynamic applies to web-based apps and the whole cloud-computing paradigm. Consumers understand web-based apps if it's something they already use like, say, Gmail. Applying the same principle to traditionally client-based apps like Microsoft Office is bound to cause confusion and consternation from consumers who worry that they can't use their apps unless they're online.

Managing expectations

Google is working on that, of course, leveraging technologies like HTML 5 to cache data on the client to allow people to use web apps offline (even Gmail). The trick will be explaining that to users in a way that makes sense - and assuring them that using web apps is just as safe and secure as using them onboard the device, and that they'll perform just as well.

And that's easier said than done. For example, according to Gartner, the majority of enterprises in the UK that have tried SaaS (software as a service) are not impressed, citing poor performance and lower cost savings than they were promised by service providers. In the US, meanwhile, Forrester reports that a quarter of new netbook users were dissatisfied with the devices because they were under the impression that netbooks were essentially miniature laptops with similar performance metrics (which they decidedly are not).

So at the very least, Google's web apps ambitions had better come with a plan to manage user expectations - ideally one that retail shops and service providers can duplicate. Until then - and until mobile OS vendors adopt a web apps strategy, or until netbooks outsell handsets - the app store model isn't going anywhere anytime soon.