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Why ChromeOS Scares Me -- or Open Standards != Open Source

Google is attacking Free software. This is not a drill.

Google recently announced, to much fanfare, their much anticipated GNU/Linux distribution, called ChromeOS. Though it is not set to be released for over a year, ChromeOS has gained much publicity and has made many in the Open Source community very happy, in general. It was a little different than most of the speculators had expected but it is little surprise: It's targeted towards netbooks, and will boot into a version of Google's Chrome browser, instead of a standard desktop. Web2.0 will be the real star here. And why shouldn't it be? Web2.0 has created another dotcom boom, with startups coming out of the woodworks and bringing a whole new set of verbs to the English language. What could go wrong?

With the backing of a huge entity like Google, it may finally be the year of the Linux desktop. So why am I so afraid? After all, the advances that Google may add in terms of hardware support for netbooks, additions to the kernel code, and a 'brand new' windowing system, will be absolutely stellar additions to the GNU/Linux system. Google's work will help push Free software development into the limelight, and bring many new users to GNU/Linux systems.


Let's take a look at a few facets of this new Operating System.

1 It will be browser centric

What does this really mean? It means that it will be a gateway to a world of open standards. The internet was founded on the ideals of sharing and openness. Yet, the Web2.0 revolution has forged a proprietary ecosystem around such things as community and media. In embracing these javascript powered web services, users have sacrificed a very important thing: their freedom. Google's applications are distinctly nonfree software. Sure, small sectors of their application sphere (Read: Android) are technically Free, the company that prides itself on open and communal development has quite a bit of work to do in that regard. And, imo, they don't want to.

The main problem can be summed up into one easy little sentence: Google's ChromeOS is not truly free software. ChromeOS uses free software and a small loophole in the GPL to provide proprietary services using a completely free system. It's using Free software against itself, in a way. And that is scary business.

2 What is really yours?

It is no longer possible to crack open the source archive of your favorite application, or to even see what data that application is storing, because it is running on another entity's server. You cannot verify that Google does not solicit your data to others, you cannot verify that they may randomly shut down your account, deleting all of your data, your emails, and leaving you completely unable to be contacted. Many Web2.0 applications have license agreements specifically barring you from using the data that you have uploaded/created on their services in other way except on their sites (Facebook, I am looking at you)

George Orwell wrote about a society where to government controlled everything, completely and solely. Now we are slowly but surely letting Google do just that. Sure, it is not the government doing it, but Google already watches our web browsing tendencies to "deliver a more advanced and personal product" complete with customised advertising. Google already owns the most massive archive of the internet available anywhere. Google already owns your emails, your documents, your web pages, your code, your soul.

3 What can we do about it?

The easiest solution, of course, is for google to release the source code of their web services under a Free license, such as the GNU AGPL, which is designed to allow for the Free use, and redistribution of application created to run on remote servers, addressing a slight bug in the GPL where users of software could argue that their applications are 'technically' not being released, and thus they weren't obliged to release the source code for them.

This will probably not happen, unfortunately. Google's entire future is staked on these applications being the best, having to fight it out with Microsoft and newer players in the web market will make their proprietary ownership of the Google flagship applications (search, mail, maps, docs) all the more crucial to them. So our only option is, as hard as it seems, to find open alternatives. Most all of them would best exist on the canon desktop. That's where the user would normally find these applications, after all, and their data does not exist in the hands of other third parties. However, the people whom Google is targeting for ChromeOS will not be the kind of users to be willing to install and maintain a GNU/Linux system. This is what makes ChromeOS so scary: it has the chances of controlling yet another market entirely – with exclusively proprietary applications.