Meet your new boss: Google

Opinion – Ten years ago, when I first interviewed the founders of a 30-people strong company and was confronted with the claim that it had reinvented the search engine wheel, I had little reason to believe that Google could survive. Back then we thought that search engines would turn into media portals, but Sergey Brin and Larry Page had chosen a different path for Google – and changed the way we search for information on the Internet. Now Google says it prepares the release of an operating system. Can Google change the way we think about the software that runs our computers? Will Google be the new Microsoft?

Before I start let’s stop pretending that we all are so surprised that Google is working on its own desktop operating system. All doubts should have been erased with the release of the Chrome web browser, which we at TG Daily actually believed to be the client GUI of an upcoming cloud operating system some time ago and, of course, we have Android, Google’s mobile devices operating system that was rumored to be making its way to netbook computers in the future. We knew it was coming in one way or the other and today we learned that this new operating system will be a Linux-based, cloud-targeted technology called Chrome OS.

I wonder what meetings are held at Microsoft today and what is going through Steve Ballmer’s head.

The fact is that the simple announcement of Chrome OS and the thought that it will be just another Linux distribution on the market is not that simple. Here are two different angles.
First, we have seen Google growing into an incredibly strong company with massive resources that allow the company to compete with virtually any other corporation on this planet, while still being able to take advantage of the perception of a nimble, innocent and successful company that seems to be on an extended honeymoon. Google owns the search engine market, it controls Internet advertising, and makes its way into new market such as cloud applications and mobile operating systems. Google also makes mistakes, but it is now strong enough to be able to afford occasional hiccups and hiccups are something you would almost expect. Failure is human and it is part of Google’s brand.

No one knows whether Chrome OS will be successful as the netbook operating system the company develops it to be. We don’t even know how such success would be defined by Google. What we do know, however, is that Microsoft was in hibernation with Windows XP, screwed up with Windows Vista and is now fixing Vista with Windows 7. That circumstance made Microsoft vulnerable at its very core, allowing companies such as Apple to take shots at where it hurts. It is somewhat ironic that Microsoft, a company several times the size of Google, has just been able to counter Google’s search engine with its own Bing offering and – while Microsoft considers this business as critical to its future success – Google is confident enough to take a stab at what has made Microsoft what it is today: Windows.

Chrome OS is geared towards netbooks initially and its reach will be limited, but we remember that 96% of all netbooks sold today are running a, let’s be honest, an outdated operating system called Windows XP. Windows 7 will follow soon, but this operating system is based on the general idea and thoughts behind Windows Vista and do not cater to the needs of what these devices want to be – capable Internet content viewing devices. If I believe my sources then it is clear that Microsoft has been working for more than two years on an entirely new operating system whose idea originates in the Singularity OS, but the software will not be ready until 2012 or 2013. That makes Windows 7 a software that simply bridges the gap between the old and new. In short, sorry Microsoft, a patch.

Windows 7 cannot hide that it is based on an old, increasingly bulky software base that may not fit in our time anymore. Apple has been exploiting the shortcomings of Windows for some time now and it does not take much to see that Google will do the same. That said, it will be interesting to see how the relationship between Apple and Google will be affected by the release of Chrome OS.

Of course, just because Google now has an operating system does not mean that Microsoft needs to be scared. There is the Chrome browser as well, which is much closer to Google’s core business than an operating system. And that browser has just crossed the 2% market share mark at this time (according to Net Applications) and has not yet revolutionized the way we think about browsing the web. But Microsoft should be watching and perhaps thinking about working a bit faster on a commercial version of Singularity. Microsoft was able to afford to be caught on the wrong foot with web browsers and it may be able to also deal with being behind in the search engine business. But it certainly cannot afford Google to be a successful operating system company.

If that happens, it will be clear to all of us that Google will be the new Microsoft (which it is to some of us anyway already) and many will think back to the good old days of Microsoft. Will Google be able to bring Microsoft down in the end? Your guess is as good as mine.

Bringing down Microsoft actually takes me to the second angle of this story – Google CEO Eric Schmidt. I cannot think of any time during my career as a journalist when Schmidt was not somehow trying to take operating system market share from Microsoft. Dean Takahashi has written an interesting article on Schmidt’s past and some of us may actually remember not as successful Google CEO, but as struggling CEO of Novell and as a key personality at Sun behind the Network Computer (a concept driven especially by Oracle back in the late 1990s), a thin client that essentially was what we believe today the cloud computer will be: A lean and simple computer without much storage and performance capability that runs web applications and uses services on the Internet. Back then. It was Java that was the platform and we know that both Sun and Oracle were not strong enough to take on Microsoft and the Internet was not mature enough to support such a concept in front of consumer’s eyes.

Today, however, Google may be strong enough and the Internet may be mature enough to give Eric Schmidt the opportunity for another shot. Think about it: Google owns Internet search, it owns a staggering amount of the data available in this world, it owns Internet advertising, and it is expanding a cloud application software suite that closely resembles Microsoft Office. Coincidence? I doubt it.

In fact, Google is, on the Internet, much stronger than many of us want to believe. Google wants to be the new Microsoft and it certainly has the resources to become the new Microsoft. Ok, it may be a bit early to call Google your new boss, but you should think about learning more about that company that may determine more of your daily life than any other company before.

Wolfgang Gruener is the founder of TG Daily. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.