Can Google Learn from Microsoft's Mistakes?

Google's indication (hardly an announcement) that they're getting into the OS business

comes as no surprise. It's already got Android. It's got Web-based apps that are now (finally) out of beta. It's got the right vision, IMHO, for mobility. They have the potential at the very least to put a thumbtack on Microsoft's chair, if not actually kick them in the butt.

And that's because MS thinks that an operating system is a destination rather than simply a facility to abstract hardware and network services into metaphors that programmers and end-users alike can deal with. The two key directions for mobility -- netbooks (or at least lighter clients, which includes handhelds) and Web services -- really don't require MS's vision of bloated, complex, buggy, slow, inefficient, unreliable, and expensive operating systems. Because they've been competing in the PC, rather than the Web-centric, era, Microsoft has only two options to address this opportunity -- Windows Mobile, which I still think is doomed for reasons of cost, and Windows 7, which would need several passes through the shrink-o-tron to work here, leaving it much less than Microsoft's vision (and, in fact, business and financial requirement) of OS as destination.

Google may, however, be making the same mistakes as Microsoft has continually made via a strategy of OS diversity. As with Vista, there are way too many versions of Windows 7; I'd have to buy Ultimate at an absurdly high price just to get file encryption. As you might guess, I'm not looking forward to giving Microsoft another nickel; I will, of course, buy a new PC with W7 on it to do testing projects for Network World, but this PC will otherwise not be used for production around here. I've had it with Microsoft's vision and implementation of the operating system, which is to use bloat to thwart competition, change to the user interface to add to OpEx and TCO via increased training and support costs, and refusal (or outright inability) to address fundamental architectural issues that leave their operating systems insecure, unreliable, and a burden on IT and users alike. I can't wait for all those XP users out there thinking they can upgrade to W7, and then discovering that (a) they need to do a clean install, and (b) they need W7 Pro for backwards compatibility to XP. Wow! At least Microsoft is being upfront is saying that W7 is "best experienced on a new PC".

Chrome OS, on the other hand, has a lot going for it. According to Google's blog, it's open-source, lightweight, fast (and quick-booting), simple, secure, and Web-centric. It will run on X86 and ARM processors. It's in fact targeted at netbooks, which have become, much to my dismay, largely Windows (XP Home)-centric to this point. But, as I noted above, W7 won't run on netbooks unless those netbooks add significant memory and storage (and likely processor performance), and thus cost. Again, MS has no real position here - a major strategic blunder on their part, perhaps stemming from the arrogance that accrues when one otherwise has the computer industry by the boy parts. Such, however, as I've said many times, cannot last.

But by introducing yet another OS, Google may wind up in a position similar to MS. Why, pray tell, not just use Android here? Apple's on the right path here in using substantially the same OS on everything from desktops to handhelds. You can bet that LINUX will have no problem in making this unified vision a reality as well. That's why I remain so bullish on LINUX as the basis for future mobile clients - it's small enough to fit, robust enough to provide a great platform for apps, and the price remains unbeatable. Why not, then, just add Google functionality, whatever that is, to, say Ubuntu?

Let's, however, give Google the benefit of the doubt for the moment. While I remain suspicious of their motives (they are, after all, an advertising, not software, company), Chrome OS may nonetheless turn out to be a formidable competitor and of great value to mobile users over time.

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