For Google, less is more versus Microsoft
— Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —
By Eric Auchard
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 )