Google has been making public its aspirations for Chrome OS in the past few days. Reading between the lines, it's pretty clear that it hopes to replace Microsoft as the chief supplier of enterprise desktop operating systems in the coming decade.
Talking at a press event in Singapore last week, Caesar Sengupta, Google's product management director for the Chrome OS project, said the company is counting on wooing smaller businesses first because they tend to "behave like consumers." Google envisions that larger enterprises will adopt the company's model later, as they become more comfortable with the cloud. Here's why the plan will probably work:
- Google has more money than you can shake a stick at, and it can use as much as it likes to make this happen
- Google is well on the way to replicating all the key things Microsoft did to get where it is today
The first point is pretty straightforward. Google is making billions every year from its advertising business, and this positive cash flow shows no signs of abating far from it. 'Nuff said.
Let's take a look at the second. Microsoft built its empire by offering desktop operating systems, productivity applications, server operating systems, server-based enterprise applications (like Exchange) and a mobile OS for smartphones. That's a bit of a simplification, but it's basically correct.
And what's Google been up to? It doesn't need to offer a server OS because the cloud has obviated the need for that. Instead of server-based applications like Exchange and app suites like Office, it offers cloud-based services like Google Apps Premium Edition; instead of Windows Mobile it's got its very own Android. While Microsoft started out with BASIC, DOS and Windows for the desktop, Google left the end user OS last: The final piece in Google's jigsaw puzzle is ChromeOS, a netbook OS with a Linux kernel at its heart.
By the end of this year, when ChromeOS is due to released (assuming it doesn't experience delays of Microsoftian proportions) Google will be ready to offer enterprises its own take on the single vendor solution: Users will be able to use low-cost netbooks (and maybe desktop machines?) or smartphones running Google software to access data stored in a Google-managed cloud and manipulate it with apps running in Google data centers. It will be as inexpensive as chips and need very little in the way of patching or updating by IT departments.
Will that, in fact, happen? Microsoft is clearly frightened that it will. In addition to its forthcoming web-based Office offering, the company is stepping up its push toward moving Exchange into the cloud. Recently it slashed the price of its hosted Exchange offering, and it expects 50 percent of all Exchange mailbox users to be connecting to hosted, rather than company-managed, Exchange implementations in the next few years.
Are there alternatives to Microsoft and Google? One possibility is Apple, with its combination of OS X Server, OS X, and iPhoneOS. But Apple has proved itself hopelessly incapable of penetrating the enterprise market if indeed it has ever seriously tried and it seems oblivious of the imminent move toward cloud computing that Google and Microsoft have clearly grasped. If MobileMe is Apple's answer to cloud computing, then clearly it didn't understand the question.
There's also Linux, of course. But despite the best endeavors of individuals like Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth to make Linux user friendly, it doesn't look like it is significantly closer to being taken seriously on the desktop in the enterprise than it was five years ago.
No one expects Microsoft to give up without a fight, which might include giving away free starter versions of its desktop OS and Office apps. It's an old and time-proven trick of Microsoft's to fight competitors by giving away rival products and driving them out of business. The difference here is that Google's bottomless pockets make it immune to this type of attack.
That means the stage is set for bloody revolution some time in the next 10 years. Microsoft won't go easily, but Google is younger, nimbler, and, for the moment at least, more popular.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.