July 9, 2009

The ghost of Marc Andreessen comes back as Google Chrome OS to haunt Microsoft

This news is one of the biggest digital tipping points that has occurred since Munich announced that it was moving its 14,000 desktop machines to Linux.  Google announced on 8 July 2009 that it would produce an operating system for netbook computers based on the Linux kernel.  The name of the operating system is Google Chrome OS, similar in name to its Google Chrome browser.  This is the very first time that it has been announced that the titan of the Internet (Google) would take on the titan of the desktop (Microsoft).  This is certain to be a heated battle with tens of billions of dollars at stake.  The outcome of this battle will shape the Internet and personal computing for decades.

Google explained that it is taking this initiative because it wants to make computers start faster and reduce viruses, two chief complaints of PC users.  Google says that it will benefit if people enjoy their computer experiences more, so they will spend more time on the Internet, which is, of course, where Google earns its bread and butter through paid advertising.

This announcement is a huge digital tipping point, for several reasons.  First, it shows that Microsoft is not invulnerable in its home turf, the personal computing operating system.  Google's name is well known, and merely by lending its name to this operating system, Google scores major points by raising question marks in Microsoft's business distribution network, namely, its Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and third party software vendors who write software for Microsoft Windows.  Consumers know and trust the Google name.  For the very first time, consumers have a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Windows in an arena where Apple deliberately did not compete with Microsoft.

Second, Google Chrome OS opens up the world of applications to competition.  Currently, all third party vendors must accept Microsoft's terms when it comes to licensing the information that vendors must have in order to write software for Microsoft's Windows operating system.  By offering competition and by open sourcing the secret sauce needed by vendors to write applications, Google fires a shot at a significant choke point of control that Microsoft held over applications vendors.  Previously, vendors refused to take any action that would anger Microsoft, for fear that Microsoft would not license the secret sauce to them, which effectively would be the kiss of death for these vendors' business.  Now that these vendors will have an alternative arena in which to sell their products, Microsoft will have a much harder time dictating terms to these vendors.

Third, Google offers PC users an alternative for running applications.  Currently, many consumers are tied to Microsoft Windows computers, because the vendors, as discussed above, produce products only for Microsoft Windows, so consumers really have no choice about what kind of computer they will choose.  Now, with Google Chrome OS, there will be a choice.  Google will start out with its own apps, but is partnering with vendors to create choice for the new Chrome OS.  As vendors get more choice in offering their products for new operating systems, consumers will get new choices of applications from which to choose.  It is a big win for everyone but Microsoft.  

Forth, Google Chrome OS is a Linux operating system, which means that it will be possible to innovate on top of it.  The full power of the Free Open Source Software community will be brought to bear to find bugs and squash the bugs quickly and efficiently.  This means that consumer-threatening bugs will be killed in hours, rather than months, as is often the case with Microsoft Windows bugs.

Fifth, Google Chrome OS will allow users to control their own data better, since the data created with Google Chrome apps will live in truly Free Open Standards.  This means that no one company will be able to lock down the data, since it will always be possible for a user to open his or her documents with word processors by OpenOffice or AbiWord or WordPerfect or even Microsoft Office.  Right now, it can be difficult for some users who have created documents with Microsoft Word to open those documents with other word processing programs, especially if they don't know that OpenOffice is compatible with almost all Microsoft Office documents.

Sixth, and perhaps the most important, Google Chrome OS will force Microsoft to compete.  Until now, Microsoft has not had any real competition, and that has created a lag in innovation.  During the US anti-trust case against Microsoft, the US Federal trial judge and the subesequent US Court of Appeal hearing the case both concluded that consumers had been hurt by artificially high prices for software and a lack of innovation in the PC market due to Microsoft's abuse of its desktop monopoly.  That situation is still going on today, for example, in the UK, where schools have to pay Microsoft even if they use a competitor's products, due to Microsoft's abusive end user license agreement.  Google Chrome's competition with Microsoft will force Microsoft to drop prices and innovate to stay ahead.  We are all the winners.  

Ironically, we are finally seeing the fulfillment of a prophecy by computer wunderkid Marc Andreessen, a computer science student who created what would become the Netscape browser back in 1995.  At that time, Andreessen concluded that the Internet browser would render Microsoft's Windows operating system as little more than a "slightly buggy set of drivers", meaning the software that makes hardware components run.  Andreessen foresaw today's world in which many computer users would be able to get their computing needs met on software applications that would run over the Internet, or within the browser on software that had been downloaded for free (as in free beer) over the Internet.  

The problem for Andreessen was that he tried to sell his browser software, which is a mistake that Google is not repeating.  Google is selling services, not software, so Google will not fall prey to Microsoft's tactic of "cutting of Netscape's air supply" by giving away the Microsoft Internet Explorer.  It was impossible for Andreeessen's Netscape company to survive, because Microsoft commoditized Andreessen's key product.  

Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and it is Google which is commoditizing Microsoft's key product, Microsoft Windows.  Google Chrome OS is designed to make an end run around Microsoft Windows by initially focusing on web apps, an area where Microsoft has little control over third party software vendors. One journalist, Glyn Moody, has gone so far as to suggest that Google Chrome OS is "dismissing Microsoft's core products as a sideshow".  The usually conservative BBC acknowledged that Microsoft was in for a tough fight; pro-Microsoft industry observer Rob Enderle said that Microsoft found in Chrome OS its first competition in years; and journalist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols said called Google Chrome OS " that Microsoft has seen this century".

Truly, Google Chrome OS is a tremendous digital tipping point and a huge win for Free Open Source Software.  

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