It was not without a certain amount of satisfaction that I read this week that Google has announced its intention to release a cloud-based operating system that would use HTML and their chrome web browser to tie together their online applications into one unified environment. I can only imagine the reaction inside the hushed corridors of Microsoft. After all, this is what they have secretly (and not so secretly) worried about for quite some time and now it’s official. What is less certain is how the news was received over at the Apple campus. When you look at the players and the field, it makes me wonder….who is Google really gunning for?
At first glance, it seems like Microsoft is the primary target. The unforeseen explosion of netbooks has forced Microsoft into an awkward position. Their flagship OS, Vista, is too bloated and slow to run on such lightweight devices and Windows 7 isn’t out of the chute yet. Microsoft has been forced to extend the life of Windows XP in order to have a product to license to netbook OEM’s. Unfortunately, each additional copy of XP they sell only adds to the user base of a product they’ve been actively trying to discontinue. It also raises the possibility that as consumers continue to choose netbooks over traditional low-end laptops, Microsoft is in effect cannibalizing its own sales by opting to license a product with less built-in profit. At the same time, several Linux distros have attempted to bridge the gap by offering a netbook-friendly version of their operating system sporting larger icons and a simplified navigational structure. Unfortunately, none of these have managed to achieve critical mass, leaving the nascent field still open for another challenger.
The Google Chrome OS seems poised to offer the industry something it hasn’t really seen yet, a fast, stable operating system that isn’t kluged from a mobile OS but is designed to bring desktop functionality to a whole new breed of internet devices. But here’s where it gets interesting. When you look at who has had the most success bringing desktop functionality to a wireless device, it’s not Microsoft. It’s Apple. It’s the iPhone that stands at the epicenter of the smartphone revolution. It’s the iPhone that will give Apple an advantage in building the next wave of internet devices, and I think Google knows this.
After all, Google could have simply re-tasked Android, their open-source mobile OS for use on netbooks. Why go to the extra time, effort and expense of creating a totally new product, especially when you have manufacturers like Acer and Dell who have announced Android-powered netbooks of their own? I suspect its because Google either knows or fears that Apple will expand upon the iPhone OS in the not-so distant future.
All of this leads me back to that ancient rumor, dispelled and resurrected many times before of the Apple internet tablet device. Personally, I believe it exists and that it will see the light of day in the not too distant future. A convergence of several factors, from the maturation of 3G networks to the recent advances in OLED and SSD technology to Apple’s recent fascination with space-saving battery technology all seems to indicate that the technological barriers to a thin, fast, wireless internet tablet are quickly eroding. If you combine that new hardware with all the inherent strengths of the iPhone ecosystem, you get a very potent combination of applications and services that begins to sound similar to what Google hopes to achieve with the Chrome OS. They approaches are different of course, but both companies seem to agree that the wireless web is the next great frontier of personal computing and both companies want a say in defining that future.
Ironically, the company whose products run most of the world’s computers may be the one caught flatfooted by the rapid changes in mobile computing. Aside from being a giant apology note to Vista users, what is Windows 7 but yet another version of Windows?
When you break down the netbook phenomenon, it’s not just about cheap hardware…it’s about providing essentials. What really divides these companies is how they define what “essential ” really is. For Microsoft, it’s essential to provide the familiar Windows experience across a range of platforms and devices, regardless of whether they’re desktops, notebooks or netbooks. For Google, it’s essential to focus on task-based computing and work to disassociate the operating system from the application. For Apple, it’s essential to control the user experience and work to refine how a person interacts with their technology.
Will we see the day when the web becomes the ultimate OS? Will the breakthrough Apple tablet device ever emerge from its techno-cocoon? Will Microsoft find a way to embrace the future without abandoning its past? It will be interesting to see how the story unfolds over the next year. One thing’s for certain, increased competition is the best catalyst for innovation and change. Regardless of whether the Chrome OS succeeds or fails, its very presence will help drive the industry forward and that is good for everyone.