You can come down on one side or the other of how practically big the planned Chrome OS will be. My take is skeptical, and as often happens, my colleague Michael Hickins disagrees. But getting stuck on the yes/no question misses what I think is a more interesting possibility: a Firefox-based OS.
Look at Google's plans: place Chrome atop Linux and create a lightweight OS that heavily depends on web resources -- presumably Google Apps for applications, GDrive for extended storage, and the eventually inevitable GCards for sending electronic greeting cards to your virtual buddies. Given that Chrome the Browser has been around for under a year and that the target release for an OS is in 2010, it simply doesn't seem like enough time to build something largely from scratch, so I'm guessing that Chrome the OS is going to be more like a browser interface to a pretty full version of Linux, with its existing support for hardware, file system management, and all the other things that an operating system has to do. (And given the licensing issues, the intense use of Linux might also explain why Google isn't planning to charge hardware vendors for using the OS. And as I said about a year ago regarding Android, it seems like a way for Google to control the potential advertising vehicle.)
But as I mentioned a couple of days ago, Chrome has not been the most popular of products. Depending on which numbers you look at, it's gone from about 1 percent of the browser usage market to somewhere under 2 percent. On one hand, that's nothing to sneeze at. On the other, that hardly shows a groundswell of interest.
And yet there is something intriguing about the idea of running a largely web-based approach to computing, with the increased interest in and capabilities of a cloud infrastructure. What other possibilities are there on this front? How about as a Mozilla project a Firefox and Linux mashup? The little open source browser that could has been helping create a steady erosion of IE usage and currently has over a quarter of the market. Putting that differently, it is the single most popular browser next to IE, and given the way trend lines look, could well become the single market leader. It also has a development community built around extending its capabilities.
That's another way of saying that Firefox has enough public recognition and industry attention that, in all practical ways, its brand is stronger than that of Google Chrome. So if Google can snap Chrome on top of Linux, let's see the open source community do the same with Firefox and then make it available to hardware vendors. It would surely shake up the status quo far more than Google, which ultimately still has its own economic interests under consideration. You'd get the ease of use of the browser to mask the inherent perceived complexity of Linux, trade on a big public name, leverage a development community, and wind up with a netbook OS that wasn't likely to eventually use intrusive advertising as a way of funding.