The media cycle of past few days has been dominated by word of Microsoft's apparently imminent demise at the hands of Google Chrome OS, the search-engine giant's newly announced operating system initially intended for mininotebooks, known popularly as "netbooks."
While predictions of the death of Windows may be premature, Microsoft may already be in the midst of developing a competitor to Google's stripped-down operating system, a project code-named Gazelle.
Microsoft has offered no official comment on Chrome OS, nor has it mentioned any potential release dates for a netbook-oriented operating system. However, it may feel pressure to respond to Google in order to hold its substantial market share in the netbook arena, which may erode if Chrome OS provides a satisfactory user experience.
"Google Chrome OS is not a full-frontal assault on Microsoft Windows, but instead coming at it from one side," Ray Valdes, an analyst with Gartner, told eWEEK. "Google's usual approach is to narrow the scope and solve one part of the problem in a deep way. We saw that with Google Maps and to a lesser extent with Gmail and Chrome browser."
In that spirit, Google with Chrome OS is "picking one low-hanging fruit," Valdes added. "They already have a browser, they also have an operating system (their flavor of Linux), and all they need is one relatively small subsystem (a windowing environment) to complete the picture."
While Chrome OS will initially be a consumer-oriented offering, Valdes thinks, it will be roughly three to five years before it potentially impacts the enterprise.
In order for Microsoft to compete, Valdes said, the company needs "a fast, cheap lightweight browser-OS hybrid" like Gazelle.
Operating as a browser-based OS, Gazelle would likely manage access to devices and system resources, as well as enforce policies. In theory, this would protect users' devices from malicious plug-ins and other malicious code.
A browser OS makes particular sense within the context of cloud-based applications, whose growing prevalence and popularity has put pressure on browsers to juggle power-intensive Web pages while interfacing with the user's device.
"Yet browsers have never been constructed to be operating systems," Helen Wang, a senior researcher in the Systems and Networking group at Microsoft Research, is quoted as saying on the Microsoft Research Website. "Principals are allowed to coexist within the same process or protection domain, and resource management is largely non-existent."
Should Gazelle turn out to be a suitable netbook OS, the question is how quickly Microsoft can produce a commercial version to blunt the market penetration of the Chrome OS, which Google says will roll out in the second half of 2010.
Despite predictions on the Google blog that Chrome OS will eventually prove suitable for high-end desktop systems, creating an operating system for that particular market segment could prove more problematic, as Google will have to deal with potentially messier issues such as OEM peripheral vendors.
Microsoft has also demonstrated market dominance in that particular segment, which it plans to continue with the Oct. 22 rollout of Windows 7, its new operating system.