The battle ahead: Google Chrome OS vs. Microsoft 'Windows 8'

For Google to emerge as a true contender in just the field of netbook operating systems as soon as 2011 will require it to have smoothly and swiftly cleared an immense obstacle course first. But just the fact that Google will make the attempt will underscore a hard new reality facing Microsoft, one which my friend Carmi Levy pointed out on Monday: The rules of the game for operating systems and applications are changing rapidly, and their underlying principles are being rewritten.

Scott Fulton On Point badge (200 px)Now, we can adopt Google's quaint little prophecy and sing praises -- perhaps to the tune of "It's a Small World After All" or, if you prefer to go really over the top, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- to the notion that "The Web is now the platform." In our hearts, we may hope for that to be true; in our minds, we all know that's rubbish, holding as much water as Intel's and Microsoft's 1980s notion that x86 architecture "is the platform." There is no single platform for online applications, and whether there ever will be is still a matter of some debate. At this rate, it's not happening.

But whoever holds the key to the applications that people want to use, will hold title to "the platform" that developers will support; and if that key should change hands, developers will follow. Right now, Google does not hold that key; and as far as applications are concerned -- functional tools that people and businesses want to use every day and trust with their livelihoods -- it actually hasn't been getting any closer at all to attaining that goal.

The killer app remains the killer

Microsoft's stronghold in software today rests on two pillars: the prominence of Windows and the ubiquity of Office. Windows is the strongest operating system for x86 systems today. But the principal reason for that is because businesses prefer Office applications. The secondary reason is because more businesses' custom apps are written for Windows, and thus their logic is based on Windows databases; but even now, the reason businesses still choose Windows as their custom apps platform is because they plan to also use Office. The third reason is because Windows Server is strong in providing Exchange and SharePoint services, but even those are more dependent upon Outlook, Word, and Excel as time goes on -- everything that follows merely supports the principal reason: Businesses prefer Office.

That's not just because of Office's reliability or even necessarily its quality (which has sometimes been a variable), but because of the colossal third-party support system in place for training its business users and supporting business' applications plans based around Office. It's still a very strong foundation that will not be toppled easily; what had appeared to be the best organized effort to dissolve Office's stronghold on business -- the attack on Microsoft's document standards -- has largely fallen apart after Microsoft's successful campaign to make ISO 29500 an international standard.

For Chrome to become successful as an operating system, it will need strong applications -- a counterpart to the boost that Office gives Windows. And right now, Google Apps are no contender to Office, despite the innovative platform on which they're based, and an even more innovative platform being developed for them. Google will need applications that are well supported, that businesses will adopt and trust, and that will also play equally on Linux, Mac, and Windows. Until it can play that trump card, Chrome will be, from the perspective of Windows users, the #3 or #4 Web browser.

Making the operating system not matter

Yet Google has made some progress in attaining one principal goal: specifically separating "the platform" from the operating system. This was Sun Microsystems' original goal: to make it feasible for developers to address a broader base of users than any single operating system would claim for itself. It's still a smart idea, making it possible to not have to publish "for Windows" or "for Mac." Google's revision of this idea is to set up "Web standards" as the basis for its platform, to make good with regulators who are easily placated by promises of "openness" and "interoperability."

But let's be honest: Google's objective is to create a way for developers to build "for Chrome," and have their apps run on Linux, Mac, and Windows. Whether Chrome is the OS on the client system or not, Google would provide users with as much intermediate code as is necessary -- as small as a runtime or a Web browser, or as large as a Linux environment -- to provide its Web apps with platform parity.

You can just see the logos now, can't you: "Works with Chrome OS." "Chrome-Ready."

Here's the real problem: The conditions which made it possible for Google to make this breakaway attempt to attack Microsoft, indicate that the operating system is less important as a foundation for "the platform." But for Google to be a contender, it has to make its operating system more important -- it has to convince users that because the OS doesn't matter much anymore, Chrome OS matters. It has to advance "the platform" to such a status that consumers and business purchasers will pay less attention to the client OS, even though that's part of the baggage that may come with Chrome.

Next: Time to rethink Windows and Office...

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