Google: What is an Operating System Anyway?

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2008-12-11 Print this article Print

Remember last week when Net Applications told reporters Google is masking origins of some of the traffic streaming out of its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters?

Google charged the notion this week by releasing Native Client, an open source runtime engine, browser plugin, and compilation tool set geared to boost Web application performance on computing devices. Some observers think Native Client could be combined with its Chrome browser, Gears and to form some of Microsoft Windows-killing Web operating system.

I caught up with the men behind Native Client, Google's Linus Upson, director of engineering, Brad Chen, engineering manager for Native Client and Henry Bridge, product manager for Native Client.

Here's the full Q&A, but for less patient readers I want to tease out the highlights. The geekier types should gulp down the Q&A there's lots of talk about security in there.

Upson says he has no idea why Net Applications couldn't divine the origin of some of Google's traffic, and was elliptical about whether or not Google has a Web operating system in the works.

Upson: We don't comment on rumors like that, just like when people ask us about all kinds of crazy things.

Me: Similar to like how you denied the existence of Chrome before you announced Chrome?

Upson, joking: Just like with Chrome, just like with the space elevator and the zeppelins. I can't talk about them.

Maybe I'm reading a bit in to this, but you know that tone that people get when they know something you don't. You know, the one where they're absolutely dying to tell you something they can't. Upson had it.

Clearly, Google is building several layers of a so-called Web OS. Just what form it will take is unclear, but it will be something that makes Web apps as fast and hardy (eventually more so) than Web apps.

Upson made light of my question about what in addition to Chrome, Android, Gears and Native Client might make a good Web OS stack, noting that "Ever since the Microsoft antitrust trial, I don't know what an operating system is anymore. They drew the circle very wide and basically said it's anything we call Windows. My computer science 101 textbook had a much narrower definition of what an operating system was. I can't define an operating system in any kind of reasonable way."

He did say:

But I can tell you what we're trying to do with things like Chrome, Native Client and Gears. We really want to make it possible for people to build Web apps that are as rich, responsive and powerful as desktop applications. We really want to close the gap between the Web and the desktops. We're very committed to doing that with open source and open standards.

Why would Upson have the right to feel giddy about this? Because if they can pull it off, it will make search look even more like the real end run around Microsoft that it currently is designed to be. A Google operating system, on top of which sit search and Web apps, could absolutely blow up in this evolving world of hungry Web users.

How would Google distribute this? Some, like analyst Rob Enderle, note Netbooks are where Microsoft is weak:

Displacing Microsoft is at the core of [Google's] strategy. First step was largely to take much of the value out of Windows and put it into the cloud, second step is to use Android, the Applications store, and Gears to start to displace it, and the third step is to carry this all into the enterprise where they are currently doing foundation work. It isn't so much that they are running at Windows head on, they are making a flanking move and coming on smart phones and eventually Netbooks. With Windows Mobile 7 slipping and the issues with Windows on Netbooks they have a better shot than any other Microsoft competitor has ever taken if they can execute and Microsoft has been blessed by competitors that can't execute.

What do you think? Is the smart money on Google coming at Microsoft through Netbooks in addition to mobile phones? |

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