Google as Pirates?

by Krishna on July 12, 2009

Bruce Eckel, one of my favorite book authors, has a thinly disguised anti-Microsoft screed titled “The Cathedral and the Pirate” with Google Chrome OS used as a bludgeon. Apparently, Microsoft is a cathedral and Google is the pirate which can run rings around the cathedral – oops, mixed metaphor – galleons. Eckel also compares Microsoft to a water buffalo and a net in the jungle which he is at it.

There are many areas where Eckel goes wrong, but let me point out a few. For example, he says:

you could take a bigger risk and redefine the playing field by creating your own browser, and then implement the most advanced technologies, correctly, or at least the way you want them. At some point — you’ve got enough clout, after all — you can start saying “this application will only run properly under Google Chrome.” And for that matter, you can start shipping Chrome with all the necessary support for offline storage and connection to the operating system services required to create more sophisticated apps. “Developers, developers, developers!” will soon start creating their own apps that will only run under Chrome, just because it’s the easiest path (they already know JavaScript, but now it works without pain and they have access to storage and other OS things, but sandboxed so they don’t have to worry about viruses and other corruption).

If I remember my history of browsers correctly, Internet Explorer was in the situation where they owned 90% of the browser market. Many web and application developers only tested against IE because it was not worth testing against Netscape or other browsers. But Firefox came with better features and slowly eroded IE’s advantage. Why should Google Chrome be any different?

Any feature (including offline storage) implemented by Google Chrome will be copied by other browsers, especially Firefox, but also IE and Safari. Why should people switch to Chrome then? The non-Microsoft crowd is already invested heavily in Firefox, so there is limited scope for growth for Chrome.

Eckel raises the specter of viruses quite often in his article, but they are mostly strawmen. He says that his brother spends half his time cleaning up virus-infected systems in small and medium businesses. But could those businesses switch to netbooks? A better answer would be to move to Linux or Mac OSX systems. This argument also ignores the strides Windows has made in terms of security and how much people pay attention to security when they buy systems.

Microsoft is targeting netbooks with Windows 7 Starter edition that will probably have lower OEM prices. The extra cost that Windows (or any other standard OS) adds to netbooks is more than offset by allowing them to run different applications. Unless Google Chrome OS has a version of every desktop application that can run on Chrome, the price argument is a non-starter.

Netbooks is a high-risk, low-margin market segment that is under attack from two sides (cell phones and laptops). And Google Chrome OS faces the same risk. Laptops, as desktop replacements, need full-fledged OSes. So the best bet for Google is Android because here it can credibly compete with the other mobile OSes.

As for Microsoft, yes, its margins will decline with decreasing costs of hardware, but Windows will stay around for a long time. That, however, will be a topic for a future post.

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