Netscape redux: Google's Chrome browser now an OS - Embedded.com

Netscape redux: Google’s Chrome browser now an OS

San Francisco, Ca. – The day that Microsoft has dreaded since the mid-1990s is at hand: Google Inc. is rolling out a new browser-based PC OS that stands a good chance of dislodging the software giant's Windows.

And, by the way, also transforming personal computing from a localized desktop activity to a netcentric paradigm in which activity occurs “out there” in the “compute cloud.”

It is a reversal of the position that Microsoft was in during the mid 1990s when Netscape burst upon the world with its Web browser software, a commercial version of Mosaic, developed under contract to the U.S. government, and available at the time as a more primitive browser add on, and as a competitor to the Lynx browser, an even more rudimentary text-based browser.

At one point Netscape Communications Corp. held more than 95 percent of the then nascent Web browser market, until Microsoft refocused its attention from a total attention to the desktop environment to a market it had – until that point -totally ignored.

Struggling for several years to compete against Netscape head to head with its own browser, also based on Mosaic, Microsoft bit the bullet and offered its browser free to users of its Windows OS, which still owns a lion's share of the desktop OS market, albeit slightly smaller due to inroads from a variety of open source Linux OS variants.

Netscape's new idea: The Web is the app platform
But what signaled Netscape's doom and made Microsoft shift strategies – offering its browser free and muscling its customers and hardware partners to make it harder for Netscape to compete – was not its struggle to compete with Netscape's dominance in the browser segment – minuscule compared to desktop software.

More threatening was that Netscape had started talking about – and working with partners on – a new Web-browser centric applications programming interface that would bypass the desktop OS as the platform within which all application software would run.

The idea, Netscape proposed, was a totally Web-centric applications environment in which developers would write their software to run under the browser without the intervention of the OS altogether.

If Netscape's idea had caught on, Microsoft's domination of desktop computing would have been ended before the end of the 1990s, and the shift to what everyone is now calling “cloud computing” would have occurred 15 years ago.

Now, Netscape is no more, while its browser still survives as the open source Firefox, which is still nibbling away at Windows Internet Explorer domination on the desktop.

Google's Chrome OS – The Web is STILL the platform
At its core, Google's new desktop, netbook, smartphone OS is built around Google's just introduced Chrome browser and will debut by the second half of 2010.

It will initially be targeted at the low-cost netbook market, although it will eventually migrate to the PC segment, an area long dominated by Microsoft, which is planning to roll out the latest version of its Windows OS later this year.

Its recent fiasco with the Windows Vista, more or less rejected by both business and personal users of the desktop OS, has forced it to come up with a more streamlined, and backwards compatible desktop Window 7 OS (sort of , which will come out later next year, just as Google's Chrome becomes available.

Unlike Windows, Google's Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips, and the company is working with multiple OEMs to bring a number of netbooks to market next year.

The software architecture that Google is proposing is amazingly similar to the original Netscape effort – Google Chrome will run within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel, in essence, making the Web the application platform not the desktop or the desktop OS.

Rethinking the OS, again
Google says it is entering the OS market because the current technology products are outmoded, designed as they were in an era when they was no Web, making it necessary to re-think what operating systems should be.

Compared to Netscape, which was David to Microsoft's Goliath, Google is another Goliath, rivaling in size to Microsoft, having gained its financial heft by initially targeting a segment of the Web market also totally ignored by Microsoft ” web search engines, a strategic mistake much more serious than its lack of attention to the browser market in the mid-90s.

Google claims its Chrome browser is already being used by more than 30 million people globally. And it is also going after Microsoft's domination of the applications market by developing products compatible with its rival's Microsoft Office applications, as online applications that do not need a desktop OS to operate.

Google is also challenging Microsoft in another area where Microsoft is still working hard to compete, much less dominate – mobile devices. Against Microsoft's smartphone OS, Google's Android OS for mobile devices is rapidly gaining momentum.

Unlike Netscape's pioneering an ultimately unsuccessful effort to shift applications development and operation from the desktop to the browser and to the web, Microsoft may have more than met its match in Google.

With over $17 billion in cash and short-term investments, Google has more enough funding to support the new OS, and its own domination of the Web search engine market also gives it a strong platform to successfully compete with Microsoft.

A variety of wrong moves and failures by Microsoft may also be playing in to Google's hand. One is the effort by Microsoft initially to downplay the vulnerability of its operating system to viruses. Then there is its effort to take advantage of its perceived domination of the market bully not only PC makers, software competitors and even the end user.

Like I said, Microsoft's worst nightmare.

Embedded.com editor Bernard Cole is ESD Magazine articles editor as well as site leader ofTechrite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Call him at 602-288-7257 or send an email to bccole@acm.org.

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