In Chrome, Hints of a Real Rival to Windows
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
By MIGUEL HELFT and ASHLEE VANCE
Published: July 8, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO — If at times you're frustrated with your PC — and who
isn't? — Google says it is working on a solution.
Many people easily lose patience with PCs that are slow to start up and
prone to crashing, vulnerable to virus attacks and constantly in need of
fiddly updates. Hoping to turn that irritation to its advantage, Google is
developing an operating system — the underlying software that handles
the most basic functions of a computer.
With the software, Google is mounting a blunt challenge to the dominance
of Microsoft, whose Windows operating system runs about 95 percent of
PCs. Google promises that its Chrome operating system, which will be
available on computers in the second half of next year, will put an
emphasis on speed, simplicity and security.
Google faces enormous hurdles. Computing giants like I.B.M. and Sun
Microsystems have spent years trying to dethrone Microsoft, with little to
show for it.
But if it gains traction, Google's plan could undermine not only Windows
but also Microsoft's other multibillion-dollar franchise, Office. Google is
trying to put the Web browser at the center of people's digital lives,
relegating complicated operating systems like Windows to a secondary
"I'm not saying the shareholders should take their money and run, but this
is the beginning of the end of Microsoft as we knew it," said Jean-Louis
Gassée, a venture capitalist who has battled Microsoft in posts at Apple
and his own computer company, Be.
A spokesman for Microsoft, Frank Shaw, declined to comment on Google's
announcement or the competitive threat.
The new software's primary mission will be to run Google's Chrome
browser, which will serve as a quick on-ramp to Web sites and online
applications like Gmail and Facebook.
"We're designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you
onto the Web in a few seconds," Sundar Pichai, a vice president for
product management, and Linus Upson, an engineering director, said in a
blog post announcing the project late Tuesday. "We hear a lot from our
users and their message is clear — computers need to get better."
The plan is part of Google's bet that a huge shift in computing is under
way. In Google's view, Web connections will become so fast and browsers
so powerful that most of the programs that currently run on PCs will be
replaced by online applications. That would eliminate the need to install,
upgrade and back up software.
Analysts say advances in technology make that vision more realistic today
than when the browser company Netscape unsuccessfully championed it a
But Microsoft still has many advantages. It has been able to keep its
software partners churning out games, media software, tax preparation
software and other applications that rely on Windows. And it puts time and
money into making sure that a vast array of devices like printers and
cameras work well with its software.
While Google's new software will be free, other free products have failed to
dent Microsoft's armor. A handful of companies offer the free Linux
operating system as an alternative to Windows, but Linux has not gained
enough market share to weaken Microsoft. (The Chrome operating system
will have Linux at its core, and like Linux it will be open source, meaning
outside programmers will be able to modify it.)
What's more, Google's operating system remains in its earliest stages of
development, and there is no guarantee that the company can deliver on
its promises. Other software projects from Google, like its Android
operating system for mobile phones, have had only limited success in the
market so far.
Yet with Google's latest effort, some argue that the right company has hit
on the right idea at the right time.
"Google has a reasonable stab at redefining the desktop," said Mark
Shuttleworth, the chief executive of Canonical, which makes a version of
Linux called Ubuntu.
Rather than buying bulky desktop computers, consumers have been
turning recently toward small, low-cost laptops known as netbooks, which
serve as little more than gateways to the Web. Google says its operating
system will be initially aimed at netbooks, which are generally not powerful
enough to handle the latest version of Windows.
Google's fundamental business model, too, may play to its advantage. The
company says it believes that making Chrome free to PC makers will be
worthwhile because more people will spend more time online, using
Google's search service and its other Web-based applications like Google
Docs, a Web rival to Microsoft Office. That will help Google make more
money from advertising, which accounts for nearly all of its $22 billion in
That approach essentially reverses some of the dynamics used by
Microsoft to crush Netscape. At the time, Netscape charged $50 for its
Web browser, and Microsoft undermined its leadership by making its own
browser, Internet Explorer, free. Now it is Microsoft that faces free rivals to
both Windows and Office, its two biggest cash cows.
Under its model, Google could even afford to pay computer makers to
install its software on their machines, essentially subsidizing their cost.
"If hardware is free and software is free, the only way you make money is
off of services, and that is Google," said Jim Zemlin, the executive director
of the Linux Foundation.
Microsoft, while slow to act, has not stood still. It is in the process of
creating many of the same online applications as Google, although it has
been less willing to make them free.
In addition, Microsoft has blunted the popularity of Linux on netbooks.
When they first appeared two years ago, the vast majority of netbooks
came with Linux. Today, Microsoft's older Windows XP software sits on
more than 90 percent of netbooks in the United States, according to NPD,
a market research firm.
But neither of those efforts can deliver the level of profits that Microsoft has
enjoyed as it dominated the world of computing for the last two decades.
"There are answers for Microsoft, but all of them entail a significantly less
profitable business model," said David B. Yoffie, a professor at Harvard
July 9, 2009, 8:30 am
The Incredible Shrinking Operating System
By Saul Hansell
Google's new Chrome operating system is a challenge to Microsoft in
several ways. It will offer a free rival to Windows, which can add $25 to
$100 to the price of a computer. But it also represents a conceptual slap at
the elaborate array of features that make up the soon-to-be-unveiled
Chrome OS will be positively minimalist by contrast. It will be built on a
simple version of Linux that is meant to run only one application: the
Chrome browser. Google's idea is that anything for which you may have
wanted a separate software program can be done within the browser
instead. Never mind all the other functions and add-on programs you find
This vision of the declining importance of the operating system reminds me
of a conversation I had recently with Paul Maritz, the chief executive of
VMware and a former top Microsoft executive who once ran its operating
"The traditional operating system is becoming less and less important," Mr.
Maritz said. "It's not going to go away, but it is going to shrink."
VMware is in a fierce battle with Microsoft for the hearts and minds of
executives who run big corporate data centers. So take Mr. Maritz's
predictions in that light. But he nonetheless paints the same scenario for
Microsoft's big customers that Google's vision relies on for individual PCs.
An operating system, as Mr. Maritz describes it, does two things. It is the
central nervous system of a computer, controlling the disk drives, memory,
displays and such. And it provides a toolkit for people writing programs,
allowing them to save steps and also make all the programs operate in
consistent ways. Windows, for example, defines how menus appear, how
programs look for files, how they can display video and myriad other
Both roles are being usurped by new technology, Mr. Maritz argued.
VMware makes software that inserts itself between the operating system
and the actual hardware it runs on. It performs a function called
virtualization — allowing programs and operating systems to be shuffled
among different computers so they can be used more efficiently. One
minute a given server could run Windows and the next, VMware could
swap in a different application running Linux. Microsoft has its own
virtualization system, although it mainly supports Windows.
Meanwhile, Mr. Maritz said there are new ways that developers write
applications that rely less on the services in the operating system. For
example, they can use software known as development frameworks.
Microsoft's own .Net framework is one. But there are others, including
versions of Java, Ruby on Rails and Django.
"There are very few developers who write applications directly to Windows
or Linux," Mr. Maritz said. "They write applications to one of these
The frameworks, in turn, are made to work on a variety of different
operating systems. "If you are in Ruby on Rails, you have to work really
hard to tell what the operating system is, it is so far removed," Mr. Maritz
This is much the same as on personal computers, where you can't really
tell if you are on a Windows machine or a Mac if all you are doing is using
a Web browser.
VMware is deliberately trying to squeeze the role of the operating system
by working directly with the developers of these application environments
to create features that take advantage of its software. And it is supporting a
movement called "Just enough operating system" which encourages
developers to use the smallest subset needed of the pieces of an
Clearly this isn't the only model around for running servers. Microsoft has
its own vision of how data centers will evolve, with services like Azure, its
operating system for cloud computing.
But the nature of its competition is changing. It's not enought for Microsoft
to simply prove that Windows is better than OS X, Linux and other
operating systems. The company increasingly has to convince customers
that they need an operating system at all.
July 8, 2009, 1:29 pm
Does Being Free Cheapen Google's Brand?
By Saul Hansell
Is Google undercutting the value of its own brand by giving away
That's an interesting implication raised by the statement that the Yankee
Group just sent out about the announcement of a Google operating system
The research firm argues that the real winner of the battle between Google
and Microsoft is Apple. That may be overstated, but it raises an interesting
point about the gaps in what Google has offered consumers. Google is as
well-known as any company in the world, and it has earned a reputation for
technological innovation. But so far its products are not consistent, easy to
use and interconnected the way Apple's are.
"What's really hurting Google's ambitions is its inability to build a brand
ecosystem," the Yankee analyst Joshua Martin wrote. "With the
announcement of the Chrome OS, Google has missed the chance to
weave a consistent story for consumers."
Mr. Martin imagines that if Apple were to introduce a netbook or some
other portable computing device, it would connect neatly into its line of
products, which run from the iPhone and iPod through the Mac and Apple
What Mr. Martin doesn't talk about is that Apple no doubt would command
a price premium for any portable computer entry, and that a segment of
users would willingly pay it. Being a luxury goods provider like Apple is
hard work. You need to maintain both the style and substance that makes
your products worth more than the run-of-the-mill competition. But it's great
business if you can get it.
To its core, Google believes in the other extreme. The company is based
on exploiting the relentless reduction of the cost of computing hardware,
the economies of open source software, and the efficiency of huge data
centers. It drives down the cost of everything it gets involved with by
offering services, from e-mail storage to Web analytics — and soon,
operating systems — for free. All it asks is the chance to show some ads
and collect some data. For corporations, which want higher levels of
service and don't care for ads, Google charges fees, but much lower than
This has been a lucrative strategy so far. And betting on technology getting
cheaper is on the right side of history.
But is Google squandering some of what may be the best brand yet
created this century by positioning its operating system as cheaper than
Windows? What would happen if the company made the Google name
worth paying extra for?