Google Looks To Web For Future Of Computing

Google Chrome browser i i

hide captionGoogle said this week that its new operating system will be based on the Chrome browser it unveiled in September

Google Chrome browser

Google said this week that its new operating system will be based on the Chrome browser it unveiled in September

Google has long been part of people's vocabulary whenever they talk about doing a Web search. Now the company hopes to trade on its household name to gain market share in a new space — inside computers.

In a bold move this week, Google announced its plans to create an operating system for computers based on its Chrome browser, which was unveiled in September. The research and development for the browser will feed directly into Chrome OS, which will be a free, open-source project designed to get people onto the Web quickly. Open source means any programmer can make changes to it.

Two Google executives, Sundar Pichai, vice president for product management, and Linus Upson, engineering director, wrote about the initiative in a company blog post: "It's our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be."

Google says it's going to focus initially on developing the Chrome operating system for netbooks that consumers can purchase in the second half of 2010.These smaller-than-laptop computers have skyrocketed in popularity because of their portability and the ease with which users can browse the Web and check e-mail. But the announcement is also a milestone for other reasons.

Turning Up The Heat

"This is the first time that you have a company with massive consumer market share and some level of consumer confidence saying, 'I'm going to put out an operating system that's open source,'" says Stephen Jacobs, director of the Laboratory for Technological Literacy at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Google's Chrome OS will add another operating system to the mix in a landscape dominated by Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS. Chrome is based on Linux, another operating system that hasn't been widely accepted by consumers.

Jacobs says other companies like Red Hat have made strides in developing open-source operating systems based on Linux, too, but they don't have the same name recognition in the marketplace. What's more, the average person doesn't have a comfort level with open-source systems. Still, the popular Web browser Firefox, created by Mozilla, is an example of one such program that has gained wide appeal.

Will Open Source Open Doors?

With open source, users have the freedom to change, improve or customize the software. And there is a community of users who can help fix something that breaks, instead of relying on and paying for companies like Apple or Microsoft to ride to the rescue.

For small companies, taking the open-source plunge is something of a gamble because it assumes that a community will rally around its product to help improve the software over time. In the case of Google, this shouldn't be an obstacle, Jacobs says.

Computer experts say one of the advantages Google has over rivals is that it's starting from scratch.

"Google's platform is its online services, and everything else hangs off of that," says Frank Gillett, an analyst for Forrester Research. "All they're trying to do is enable [a] better Internet experience. From their point of view, they're not worrying about making it work with a zillion peripherals."

And that's where it differs from Microsoft, which is a software company.

Google makes its money from online advertising revenue, but it also offers programs, like Google Docs, a free Web-based word processor and spreadsheet that's an alternative to Microsoft Office. Analysts say the introduction of Chrome OS is sure to escalate competition between the two companies.

Betting On The Web

"Microsoft should be worried about what Google is doing," says Gene Munster, senior research analyst for Piper Jaffray. "This is the first step of what will be a five-year trend of Microsoft feeling intense competitive heat from Google."

Munster says Microsoft stands to lose its growth and pricing power — especially if Google gets even a 5 percent to 7 percent share of the operating system market. Because Google's operating system will be open source, there won't be a fee. That means Google will have a hand in creating lower-priced computers, Munster says.

A spokesman for Microsoft said the company doesn't discuss forthcoming products or comment on competitors. Microsoft plans to launch its new Windows 7 operating system in October, and the company is already promoting it with online discounts.

Google believes that "everything is going to migrate to the Web," says Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group, a market research firm. "So this, for them, is certainly a much longer-term play because, frankly — in 2009 and 2010 — there are very few consumers who want to trust the Web."

Baker says the fastest-growing hardware segment for consumers now is external hard drives — further evidence that people want to retain access and control over their digital property, whether it's documents, photos or music.

But this concern isn't just limited to the consumer marketplace. Google will have to reckon with companies about its reputation for data mining.

"Many corporations and educational institutions are uncomfortable because you're putting your intellectual property on somebody else's servers, and Google maintains that they have rights to whatever is on their servers," Jacobs says. As a result, many institutions prefer to pay for technicians to keep their computer systems updated and secure rather than risk the loss of intellectual property.

A spokesman for Google declined to comment. Google posts information on the data it collects and its privacy policies online.

From Speed To Security

When Google released the Chrome browser, it touted its security — noting that each time a new browser window opens, it creates a virtual sandbox that effectively traps any virus or malware that tries to infect a computer. Google now plans to extend that technology to the new operating system.

Google says "speed, simplicity and security" are the cornerstones of its new operating system. "We hear a lot from our users," the Google executives said in their blog post, "and their message is clear — computers need to get better. People want to get to their e-mail instantly, without wasting time waiting for their computers to boot and browsers to start up. They want their computers to always run as fast as when they first bought them."

Computer experts agree that Chrome OS could offer a simpler user experience.

"If what you want to access is on the Web, Windows is a lot of overhead, from having to boot it up, to having to deal with system updates, security patches and anti-virus software," says Jeffrey Schiller, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's network manager. He says many users ultimately end up with a machine that slows down over time because of viruses and spyware that accumulate.

Ambitious as it may be, Google's plan to create an operating system that will launch to the Web in seconds isn't going to happen overnight. Schiller says managing open-source projects can be a headache because of all of the contributors.

He predicts that Google will tap ideas from the open-source process but ultimately control the final product: "They will attempt to get the upside, and avoid the downside," Schiller says.

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