The announcement came as a humble blog post on Google’s corporate website late on July 7th,but it heralds what could be a dramatic shake-up for the information technology (IT) industry. By promising to launch a free operating system for personal computers (PCs) later this year,the online giant is mounting a direct attack on Microsoft and its dominant Windows operating system. TechCrunch,a technology blog,reported the news as “Google Drops A Nuclear Bomb On Microsoft”.
The bomb has a very long fuse,however. The first machines running Chrome OS,as the new software is to be called,will not be available until late next year. The initial version will only be suitable for netbooks,the small,cheap laptops that have proved popular of late. The idea is to provide a compact and simple-to-use operating system that boots up in a few seconds and works securely and easily with web-based applications,such as social networks and online e-mail. The software will combine Linux,the open-source operating system,with Chrome,Google’s browser.
But Google’s intention is clear. It plans to do what the now-defunct Netscape attempted when it launched its first web browser in the mid-1990s: to make Windows obsolete and turn the browser into the dominant computing platform. All applications written for Chrome OS will be web-based,although it will allow users to work offline and synchronise changes later. That means Chrome OS applications will also work with other browsers that are compliant with the latest web standards.
Microsoft has not yet officially responded. But Google’s assault comes at a time when the once-omnipotent software giant looks vulnerable. Windows Vista,the most recent version of its operating system,has not been a success. Its forays into Google’s main territory,web search and online advertising,have not brought big gains.
Yet it is much too early to count Microsoft out. It recently launched Bing,a new search service,which has been well received. In October,around the time when Google will make Chrome OS available,Microsoft will release Windows 7,the much-improved next iteration of its operating system. The firm is also spending billions of dollars on a cloud a global network of huge data centres which will rival Google’s infrastructure for web-based applications.
Will there be a clear winner? Probably not in the foreseeable future. That is a good thing: the epic fight between the two giants promises to speed up innovation,which is what the recession-bound IT industry most needs.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009