The OS War Begins

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Google fires a salvo across Microsoft’s bow – are consumers better off?

The opinions surrounding Google’s announcement that it will launch its own OS called “Chrome OS” next year ranges from “The Death of Microsoft” to “Much Ado About Nothing”. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between these extremes.

First, understand exactly what Google is doing – Chrome OS is a web-centric browser. That means it is designed from the ground-up to be a wrapper for Google’s Chrome browser. It also means that if you expect your favorite games to work with this OS, you’re in for a huge let-down. Popular desktop apps, such as Photoshop and Microsoft Office, will not run under Chrome OS.

Google has been developing a host of web-based apps and clearly sees a way to crack open Microsoft’s OS monopoly by aggressively embracing cloud computing. In the cloud, apps reside not at your desktop but in web servers located who knows where – but NOT at your desktop. There may be some functionality off-line, but apps designed to run remotely will be the norm.

Microsoft’s OS products to date are desktop-centric; they run locally off-line, you own and maintain the app. This is the “traditional” computing model which has ruled since DOS. One factor that is very important to many users: you control content locally, it’s not someplace in the “ether” where you’re not quite sure if it’s truly safe. The fossils among us are probably a wee bit uncomfortable trusting the web with our PC jewels, and more so for corporate users.

Google very clearly stated its intention to target netbooks with Chrome OS. They are targeting users who pretty much limit their PC use to cruising the net for things like email and Facebook, and provision users with web apps such as Google Maps, Google Docs and Gmail. However, straying from net-based apps may be difficult at best, if not impossible, at least in version 1. How far Chrome OS begins to act more like a Windows OS depends upon how far developers are willing to embrace it – and this is not knowable at this point.

Microsoft of course has been throwing shots across Google’s bow as well, the latest in its search engine Bing. And in its skunkworks, Gazelle is one effort aimed at making the browser more like an OS, and you can be sure there are developments in Redmond underway to meet Google’s challenge and well as others attempting to dethrone Microsoft’s OS monopoly. Never underestimate the ability of the elephant to defend itself – Microsoft has lots of cash and an army of software developers to meet these challenges (although Vista did not seem to benefit).

Add to this that Microsoft may announce Monday a version of Office that runs “in the cloud”. If so, this is a direct shot at Google Docs and may open the way for more web-centric products from Microsoft, although I’ll bet the revenue model will be quite different from Google’s.

Consumers may benefit from some serious OS competition and Microsoft may be forced to adjust pricing – Chrome OS is freeware and discussions with netbook hardware vendors would seem to indicate a favorable reception, although we heard this with Linux and that proved to be a bust. Nevertheless Google is not some under-funded dream factory and it’s conceivable they can mount a credible challenge.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of this is the business model clash – Microsoft is the traditionalist with its pay-for-software model while Google is giving the OS away in an effort to get eyeballs on its pages, using advertising as the revenue generator. It’s tough to compete against free, although how much you get with free is open to conjecture.

The upshot on all of this is that the OS market will be more diverse and consumers will have more choice from well-funded and well-known players than we have now. Security will become a key selling point for web-centric systems as the more the app resides in the net, the more secure to can become. Freeware will become more widespread and acceptable as an alternative to pay apps, giving this segment more legitimacy than it now has.

Overall OS competition can be nothing but positive for consumers.

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