The Thinker

Google’s Chrome OS aims to drive a stake in Microsoft’s heart

You may not have noticed, but Google seems hell bent on a strategy that it hopes will ultimately kill Microsoft Windows. Many have tried but so far, none have succeeded in toppling the behemoth desktop operating system. Google’s ultimate success in toppling Windows will depend in part on its success convincing people to move their data from their desktop computers into “The Cloud”.

For those of you who are not terribly tech savvy, “The Cloud” refers to the Internet in general, but more specifically to the many data servers attached to the Internet that hold personal and other data for us. You may already have much of your personal data in the cloud and not know it. For example, if you use GMail (Google’s email service), your email is hosted by Google somewhere within its cloud-computing infrastructure. Chances are even Google would have a hard time telling you exactly where your email is stored. It is probably redundantly stored among its hosting centers. Redundant hosting helps ensure that your data is always available.

In fact, there are plenty of vendors outside of Google enamored with “The Cloud” and Microsoft is among them. For example, recently Microsoft announced a stripped down version of its Office Suite for The Cloud. You may not even have to pay to use it, providing you are okay with its limited features, advertising and trust that Microsoft will forever store your personal data. Microsoft is playing catch up. Google has offered Google Docs (its version of a web-ified MS Office) for years. It too is not as feature robust as the Office Suite, but it has certain nice to have features and in most instances is free. Because it exists in The Cloud, it also allows easy sharing of documents and spreadsheets among multiple parties.

If Microsoft’s killer product is Windows, Google’s killer product is not necessarily its search engine, but its ability to maintain a highly available and scalable Internet cloud. These things do not just happen. They require many years of work, research and refinement. The reason cloud computing took off slowly is that building such an infrastructure is hard. Google did it first but there have been other leaders in this field, including Amazon. Amazon, in addition to its ability to sell you pretty much anything online, has been a cloud computing innovator too. It takes a different tack by offering businesses very cheap computing resources on demand.

It takes a while for cloud computing to work up a head of steam, but Google is getting there. For example, the City of Los Angeles will be letting Google host its email services using a commercial version of its GMail service. Whether this will be a stake in the heart of Microsoft Exchange remains to be seen. Exchange is Microsoft’s pricy but widely used business-class email server. It is a complex beast requiring many skilled specialists to keep it going. With email seen as a commodity, cloud services like GMail seem a logical way for a business to save a lot of money.

Even the Department of Interior, where I work, is rethinking email. It is seriously looking at cloud computing as a replacement for its mixture of Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes email servers. Its goal is to complete a department-wide transition by the end of 2010, which seems ambitious to me. It is possible that a year from now when I am sending work related email it will be through a hosted service like GMail rather than Lotus Notes.

It’s a little known fact, but far more email is transmitted across the Internet than web pages. (This may be due to ninety percent of email traffic being spam.) Consequently, a company that can grab a majority of the email market is well positioned to drive the future of the Internet. GMail and Google’s ubiquitous search engine are two feet into the enterprise space that may eventually kill Windows. The next part of Google’s strategy is to control the desktop. What Google is hoping to do is make desktop computing obsolete. If you store all your personal stuff in The Cloud and it is always highly available then what is the point of a big, bloated operating system like Windows, particularly when Windows can take many minutes just to boot up and costs a lot of money to set up and maintain?

To help sell this vision, Google has released its own web browser called Chrome. It’s big selling point is speed. It reputedly renders pages ten times faster than Internet Explorer and is even faster than Firefox, my browser of choice. Its market share is currently quite tiny, and is likely to remain such for the near future. For many people with high-speed Internet connections, faster rendering of web content is very much appreciated. While I like Firefox, it can be slow at times, particularly when you press the back button. If Chrome can do away with such annoyances, I might have a compelling reason to switch browsers.

Google’s strategy for killing Microsoft has two parts: selling people on netbooks and its promised new operating system called Chrome OS. If you are unfamiliar with the term netbook, it is small (generally portable) computer optimized for interacting with the Internet. It deemphasizes storing documents on the netbook. Instead, data is stored in “The Cloud” where presumably it lives longer than you do. To succeed, Google needs to convince you to trust it to not only always retain your data, but to keep it secure and highly available at all times. While Google suffers from widely scattered service problems such as a recent GMail outage, overall its track record is very good and getting better. The Facebook generation seems to be comfortable keeping its data in the cloud. Chrome OS then becomes little more than a very lightweight operating system for Netbooks. It would boot up very quickly, unlike Microsoft Windows. Presumably, Chrome would be the browser of choice for its speed and a virtual desktop operating system as well as an integrated web browser. The netbook becomes really nothing more than a portal for allowing you to interact with all your data in the cloud as well as surf the web.  In some sense, it is a Back to the Future operating system, where netbooks essentially become fancy terminals.

If Google can convince us that desktop computing in the 21st century is for Luddites, then the handwriting in on the wall for Microsoft Windows. Microsoft can try to offer its own netbooks and cloud-computing infrastructure, but it is clearly years behind Google. Nor can it offer a compelling reason for us to stick with the Windows brand in a network-computing world. Why pay for an operating system and software when Google Chrome OS would be (presumably) free, as well as most if not all of its hosted applications? Making Chrome OS available would also encourage software vendors to create their own applications that run under Chrome OS. The result could be an application-centric Internet realized through quick and response web-based applications using Chrome OS.

To the extent you believe in Google’s vision, you may wish to start selling your Microsoft stock for Google stock.


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