Now Google parks its tanks right outside Microsoft’s gates
* John Naughton
What’s the toughest question a venture capitalist can ask? Answer: “What will you do if Google enters your market?” The web has been buzzing with speculation that senior Microsoft executives are now asking that question. The truth is that they have been asking it for quite a while. In an intriguing interview he gave several years ago, Bill Gates observed that the only company out there that reminded him of Microsoft in its early days was Google. He didn’t elaborate, but most of the audience knew what he meant: a company that was smart, agile and hell-bent on world domination.
The reason for the excitement last week was Google’s announcement that it was developing an operating system – and dominance of the market for operating systems is the source of Microsoft’s power.
Until now, Google had studiously ignored this part of the market, which seemed like a smart strategy: after all, only a fool attacks on the enemy’s strongest front.
Instead Google concentrated on picking off other pieces of Microsoft territory, starting with Hotmail (attacked with Gmail), MSN (Google Talk), Microsoft Office (Google Docs and Apps) and, latterly, Internet Explorer (the Google Chrome browser).
With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, this can seem like a purposeful route-march towards the ultimate goal – replacement of Microsoft as the dominant company in the computing universe. In that sense the announcement of an upcoming Google OS can indeed be seen as the opening salvo in the final battle.
But there’s another way of looking at it. The intriguing thing about the Google announcement is not that it is developing an OS, but that it is switching tack. For nearly two years the company has been developing a Linux-based OS for mobile phones under the Android label. Most of us who have used Android assumed it was only a matter of time before a version tailored for Netbooks was released.
But that is not what Google announced. There wasn’t much technical detail in the company’s blog post, but the one thing that is clear is that the new OS will be – in its words – “a natural extension of Google Chrome”. It is, they go on to say, “our attempt to rethink what operating systems should be”.
If true, we have reached a significant milestone because what the Google guys propose amounts to turning the world upside down. Up to now, the operating system was at the heart of every computing device, transforming the machine from an expensive paperweight into something that could do useful things – running programs, managing displays, handling keyboard and mouse, etc. And because the OS had to be able to do all of this, it was the largest, most complex and most important piece of software of all.
In the old paradigm, the web browser was just another program the OS had to support. When the PC was the platform, that made perfect sense, but that paradigm has been steadily eroding. As broadband penetration increased, more and more people began to get their “computing” services not from their PC but from server farms over the net. Imperceptibly, we have been moving into a world in which, to repeat an old mantra, “the network is the computer”.
If the network is indeed the computer, then the browser – our window on to the network – becomes the key piece of software. For many people today, the browser is the only program they really need. So it was only to be expected that somebody would eventually ask why we needed vast, clunky, expensive operating systems (such as Windows Vista, say) when really all that is required is a life-support system for a browser. That’s what the Google engineers have asked. Their answer is that only a minimalist OS is now needed, and that is what they are developing – and what millions will be running in the latter part of 2010.
We have been here before. In 1995 the founders of a firm called Netscape had the same idea. If the web was going to be the key application, they reasoned, surely the browser could effectively become the operating system. They were unwise enough to say this in the hearing of Bill Gates, who realised instantly it posed a serious threat to Microsoft’s core product. At that moment, Netscape’s fate was sealed: careless talk costs companies.
But that was then and this is now. And whatever else it may be, Google ain’t Netscape. Ask Mr Gates.