For Google, less is more versus Microsoft

July 8, 2009

— Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own — 
By Eric Auchard 

Sergey Brin eyes fellow Google co-founder Larry Page at launch of Google Chrome in Mountain View California on Sept. 2, 2008.

LONDON, July 8 (Reuters) – Google has entered the very lair of Microsoft by launching its own computer operating software.

And its strategy cleverly goes with the grain of the changes that the web is making to the way consumers use software. Time for Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer to worry. 

The web search and advertising leader is not offering a copycat product to Microsoft’s desktop workhorse. Indeed it is upending the notion of what an operating system is. Microsoft’s vision is of a self-contained system that manages every action that your computer undertakes. Google takes a minimalist view. It argues that operating software only needs to do what can’t be done externally on the web. 

By stripping the components to a minimum, Google has designed the system to be fast. It is promising that users will be able to fire up their computers and get on the web in a few seconds. 

Google’s products run on a variant of Linux operating software. The guts of Linux provide many of the classic functions of a hardware operating system, leaving Google free to focus on new features. 

Google argues that web software such as Chrome, Firefox, Apple Inc’s Safari and Opera’s eponymously named browser, can carry out many of the functions of operating software. Meanwhile active computer users spend more and more of their time using programs that either run or rely on the Web. That means they spend less and less time using programs that reside locally on the user’s own machine — the way that applications that depend on Microsoft Windows typically do. 

Of course, Microsoft software works on and with the Web as well. The difference is that its dominance, its historic franchise, stems from the deskbound nature of Windows, which is optimized for routing data between chips, storage and software. Essentially Google’s gamble is that applications that could once only run on local computers will reliably work on the web. 

The risk? Well the Web is not always reliable. Network connections can be slow, or nonexistent, and any functions that require frequent connections will let you down. Google has tried to work round this by allowing users to store functions offline. But it remains to be seen whether this will satisfy the busy executive needing to keep track of business performance in a spreadsheet on a long flight. 

That said, Google has little to lose and a lot to gain from making the Web work as an operating system. Its core business of selling web search advertising tends to benefit from any increase in Internet activity. And this is where Microsoft must mount its defence by offering customers hybrid software that works on both desktops and on the web. This is something it has to date stumbled to do. If this was because it didn’t want to cannibalize Windows, that time is past. 

The initial target market Google sees for the software is in netbooks, the emerging class of mini-notebook computers with built-in Internet connections. But over time, Google aims to make its operating system run full-size desktops — in direct competition to Microsoft’s core product. 

The logic that powered Microsoft to the top of the software industry is slowly, but surely, exhausting itself as the market shifts away from PC boxes where Windows holds sway and onto the Web. It is also moving beyond just PCs to web-connected mini computers known as netbooks, and to cellphones, TVs and other devices that are also being redesigned to work on the Web.

There may be some sleepless nights ahead in Seattle.

 — At the time of publication Eric Auchard did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. You can read some of Eric’s recent columns here —

(Editing by Martin Langfield )


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One word,

Posted by Dick Diamond | Report as abusive

Just because, “Google argues” does not make apples equal to planets. This reporting has all the technological understanding that went into the Y2K hysteria. The reporter should sit down with an internals guy for an hour before penning a bunch of buzzwords.

Posted by David Kirkpatrick | Report as abusive

I recall a similar plan was said years ago by Mark Andreeson, co-founder of Netscape.

Posted by Bryan | Report as abusive

This might be an interesting niche-market product; but no-one would seriously argue this will have a major impact on business. In fact, the Netbook fad seems to be fizzling; companies are producing bigger, more powerful ‘netbooks’ that look more and more like laptops.

I’m sure Google will find some interest in this venture – and the hobbyists may embrace it, just as they have embraced Linux for the desktop. But mainstream business will ignore this.

And Seattle will sleep peacefully at least in the near future.

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

sleepless in Seattle (or rather Redmond) ?

I don’t think so : Google made a gift to MS lawyers and antitrust authorities by pushing its browser brand for its OS.

Confusingly stupid.

Posted by Stephane MOT | Report as abusive

I am very excited. It was my thinking to defeat Microsoft operating system and I believed that there are possibility to create the operating system through the web. Thanks God at least a genius read my mind. Now, I can sleep like a baby.

Posted by Mullah Shahin | Report as abusive

Whether the new Google OS becomes popular is dependent on what type of software is available for the OS. Not all software we use is available for a browser. For example, the software developers, even web developers, do not use web browser applications to write code.
Again, even if Google comes out with a desktop OS, the popularity of the OS is dependent on what software is developed for the OS.

Posted by dale | Report as abusive

we need to seriously improve broadband connections all over the world before this has any chance of really working. high speed would actually have to be high speed. and internet security would have to be about 4 million times better.

Posted by rick | Report as abusive

Great, so Google comes up with some half-baked software that users will have to fix for the next 30 years. It will not work properly if you can’t get on the web. Meanwhile, because a billion techno-addict neophiles can’t resist buying the latest stuff offered, Google will become even richer and more behemothian. So it’s next project will be to photgraph everyone in their bedroom, or on the john, and publish it on Internet inc, a wholly-iwned subsidiary of Google.

Welcome to the Brave New World, it’s year 101 of our Ford.

Posted by Talleyrand | Report as abusive

Hmm, let’s see…
As long as all you’re doing is web browsing, email, and simple office tasks it’s OK. A netbook with a browser and almost nothing else will do. In fact, even a cellphone would, as long as you can put up with tiny screen and lack of real full size keyboard.
But let’s say you need to work with large files – video editing, for example. Pushing these things back and forth across the web takes serious time – and these days people seem not to tolerate watching progress bars and hour glass cursors as well as they used to when computers were slow. Of course the file can sit on the server that does all the processing, and the PC/netbook/cellphone can be used only to transmit commands and display responses. However server processing power is not an infinite free resource, and at some point server farm owners (like Google) will have to charge for using it. OS with monthly fee or per-minute charge attached, any takers?
So we are back to local processing. How many apps can run on Google OS aside from the browser? So far none, and developing these requires time and money, which is not infinite even in Google’s pockets. Maybe, since Google intends to use Linux kernel, Linux apps would work. But then, it would become just another flavor of Linux. The talk about Linux displacing MS began even before last century was over. So far it remains just that – a talk, with real market share in single digit %. If (and it’s a big IF!) Google OS is to take a market share, it will happen at the expense of Linux rather than MS or Apple.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

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Posted by Versus | MediaFile » Blog Archive » For Google, less is more versus | Report as abusive

Hmmm… Interesting indeed. There is no doubt that much more software is being developed as web based systems and there is a huge opportunity for IT suppliers to create and sell software using a Software as a Service (SSaS). I have my doubts though that everything is going to go this way though. There are huge security issues that need to be overcome and some software is simply just not suitable for delivery over the web using current technologies and that is not going to change any time soon. Security is a tough one and i’m not sure how some of the security requirements of some companies can be solved in a cloud based environment and possibly they cannot be overcome but this doesn’t stop these companies hosting there own web based applications. In terms of functionality. Ajax based applications can still be pretty flakey and making them more reliable and robust is very costly. Flax / Flex / Silverlight offer some interesting opportunities for increasing the functionality of the web but I don’t think these technologies have really arrived yet but I think this is the area that may help make Google’s dream come true and I am a little shocked they haven’t got an entry in this area of the market.

Posted by Inflecto Systems [Software Developers] | Report as abusive