Google Chrome OS: Is It the End of an Era?</

Google's announcement this week that it would enter the desktop operating system business with an OS based on its Chrome browser has unleashed a firestorm of commentary, hand-wringing, and proclamations. It's the perfect tech industry debate, because the OS itself doesn't even exist, we can't look at it, and it's not even close to being a shipping product. But this much is clear--and in this, I am simply adding my voice to the cacophony of opinion out there--Google's entry into the OS market marks the beginning of the end of the traditional desktop OS as we all know it. That means Windows, of course, but it also means Mac OS X and desktop Linux.

If that sounds radical to you, just relax for a second. Breathe.

Here's what I mean. Google doesn't have to ship even a line of code for this release to have its effect on the industry. They will, of course, but the reality is that we were moving towards cloud computing anyway. Today's computing world is a hybrid one in which we mix and match traditional PC applications (Outlook, Word, iTunes) with cloud-based solutions (Gmail, Google Calendar, Flickr), but the traditional apps probably outweigh the cloud stuff for most. That mix is changing will favor cloud-based solutions over time. And just as the PC world is moving from one of mostly desktop PCs to one of mostly laptops, so too will software move mostly to the cloud.

Google's announcement is an explicit acceptance of this future, but so what? Google is very much a cloud computing company anyway, so the only real drama here is that they finally feel mature enough to actually go after Microsoft's most core of products. But Google has been moving in this direction for years. Google Apps, Wave, and the various synchronization and Microsoft conversion tools that Google has announced or shipped have all been major thrusts in a war with the software giant. With the Chrome OS, Google has simply made it official: Total war.

This war isn't against just Windows, however. It's a war against the past. It's a war against the desktop computing model employed by Mac OS X and desktop Linux as well. I'm curious that so few news stories and commentaries about this announcement missed this very basic fact. I'd argue, indeed, that the biggest short-term harm that Chrome OS will cause will be to Microsoft's desktop OS competitors, and not to Windows.

But Windows will be affected, make no mistake. Right now, I bet, there are strategy sessions occurring in Microsoft's Redmond campus. Some are arguing that Google needs to be met head-on. Some are more derisive towards Chrome OS, wondering what all the fuss is about. How Microsoft fares in the future will depend on who wins this argument. But this much is clear: Windows will have to change. It may change quickly, it may change slowly, but Windows is going to change.

Last month, in the wake of yet another Google inroad into Microsoft's core markets (Google Rains on Microsoft's Exchange Parade), I noted that the software giant's approach to cloud computing is wrong because Microsoft is trying to meld its old-fashioned business model to work on the web. This won't be successful. Instead, I argued, Microsoft needs to "stop considering some of its core products?Windows, Office, Exchange, and so on?as top money earners but rather as ways in which to entice customers to play in its ecosystem. Like Google's offerings, these products should be profitable but perhaps much, much less expensive ... I know it sounds radical. But the alternative?a world in which Google constantly erodes at Microsoft's messaging and other server solutions?is even less attractive. Just ask IBM. Or what's left of Lotus."

Put simply, Microsoft and Google approach cloud computing from completely different world-views, and Google's is, in this case, the correct one. In the Microsoft model, it must continue its past successes (Windows, Server, Office, and so on) by moving them to the cloud in ways that retain their previous licensing windfalls. Google's view is much simpler and will win out because it saves customers money: Google derives revenue from web ads, pure and simple. If you use their solutions, you'll be exposed to those ads, so they make money. But the user doesn't have to pay for these products--or in some cases, pays very little--so it's a win-win. (And really, when was the last time you even noticed an ad in Gmail?)

Today, you can choose between Microsoft's complex and expensive (self-hosted Exchange) solutions and their less complex but still expensive (Microsoft-hosted Exchange) solutions. Google offers simple and free (Google Apps) and simple and cheap (Google Apps Premium). Again, the winner is clear, assuming both sides offer similar or identical functionality. It's just a matter of time.

None of this means that Microsoft is suddenly a historical footnote. But for the software giant to survive or succeed in the future, it is going to have to walk away from the revenue models of the past and embrace this new world. That means changing everything, including Windows.

There will be half steps, fits and starts, and Microsoft will temporarily go down the wrong path. But I think the company is smart enough to pull through this. They'll have to market the strengths of its hybrid OS model as it moves more and more of its wares online. It will have to drop prices, and dramatically. It will need to move quickly, something it's rarely done in recent years.

Microsoft's desktop OS competitors will need to follow suit. I'm not as concerned about those systems as I am with Windows, of course, but each has various advantages that will make the transition potentially easier. Apple, of course, has already ported its Mac OS X to the iPhone, an almost ideal mobile device and exactly the kind of portable platform that will define the future of computing. Linux, meanwhile, can be found on a number of portable devices, and of course Chrome OS, which is based on Linux, could simply become the volume Linux platform the future anyway.

Whatever happens, prepare for change. Any day now, Microsoft will announce that it has completed development of Windows 7, and right on schedule. Hey, good for them. Windows 7 is a fantastic desktop OS, one that will be warmly met by hundreds of millions of users around the world. But you know what? It's also the past. Google Chrome OS marks the end of an era, and whether we end up using that system or something called Windows isn't yet clear. But I hope Microsoft is serious about this change, and ready to do the hard work it will take to lead in this coming generation of cloud-based computing. This is the turning point.

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