Google’s Chrome OS: Why It’s Not a Layup

Whether it fails or succeeds, Google’s (s Goog) upcoming Chrome OS will be one of the biggest technology stories of 2010. As predictions of its future success in tablets and elsewhere proliferate, though, the hurdles that this operating system faces become clearer.

The Challenge of Tablets and Touch Interfaces. The developers working on Chromium, the open-source core of the Chrome OS, have already shown photos and videos of tablet concepts running Chrome OS, many similar in form factor to Apple’s (s aapl) iPad. (Google has only announced its intention to put the OS on netbooks, but is widely predicted to pursue tablets.) In the video below, courtesy of the Chromium Blog, you can see numerous interface concepts for how Chrome tablets might work with touch interfaces, including some that differ from how Apple’s iPad works. (Multitouch features are now on their way to Google’s Nexus One phone.) It’s worth remembering, though, that the iPad’s OS and interface components have been developed by and improved upon by Apple for years now. Google has less experience doing advanced interfaces for operating systems, and if it spreads out beyond netbooks with Chrome OS (GigaOM Pro, subscription required), that could matter a lot.

[wpvideo gLvRp1Cw]

Chrome OS Has to Speak to Other Hardware. If Chrome OS does show up on a widespread basis in netbooks and tablets, and if some Chrome OS-based tablets are on a collision course with the iPad, then Google has to work carefully to deliver compatibility with other hardware devices that’s on par with what Apple and Microsoft typically offer. Since Chrome OS is based on the Ubuntu Linux OS and has worked with Canonical on OS development, it will take advantage of existing driver libraries and hardware compatibility software layers. However, people can get quite disappointed when their brand new, shiny hardware device can’t print, and Linux distributions don’t have the best reputation for exhaustive hardware support. As PCMag notes, netbooks now offer a pretty comprehensive level of hardware support, ranging from slots for multiformat card readers, to (in some cases) sophisticated video components.

Who Calls Google for Support? Contrary to what some may believe, Google does provide support for its product offerings, including for the paid versions of Google Apps. However, not many of us would cite frequent calls to Google’s support folks. But not only will it have to offer robust hardware compatibility, it also has to answer hardware support questions when things don’t work. Google is already facing this issue in trying to support its Nexus One phone, amidst criticism. How much will Google’s lack of experience in this area, compared to Apple and Microsoft (s msft), matter?

The Cloud Question. As I’ve noted before, Google is taking a big gamble with Chrome OS by asking people to work with all data in the cloud. The lack of ability to work with local applications, utilities and data is a decision that I expect Google to reconsider over time. After all, quite aside from the potential data security issues involved in cloud storage, don’t you have a few local utilities and apps that you love on your PC or Mac? Would you want a system that treated them as non-existent? As further evidence of Chrome OS’ blithe attitude toward jettisoning local software, if it  detects malware it will wipe the operating system completely, then re-image it.

Commitment to the OS. I’ve been a technology editor for long enough to remember the early versions of both Windows and the Mac OS. They were very stripped-down compared to today’s versions, and it took years of expensive development and commitment to improve them. Even with several years of OS development under its belt, Microsoft still stumbled with Windows Vista. Operating systems are complicated beasts requiring ongoing commitment. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has all but said that a big part of the reason for Chrome is that users of a Google OS will naturally feed into the company’s lucrative search-and-ad ecosystem. One has to wonder if that signals complete dedication to ongoing development of a world-class operating system.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to see Chrome OS roll out, precisely because it takes some risks. There have already been many glowing reports about how the OS boots in seconds — even from a USB key — and more. However, in a world that seems to automatically embrace all things Google, it’s worth remembering that many projects at the company have fallen by the wayside. Chrome OS may well succeed, but Google’s going to have some significant hurdles to jump over first.

Related GigaOM Pro Content:

Thumbnail tablet image courtesy of the Chromium Blog; in-post image courtesy of Google.