There's a new chapter under way in the saga of Google versus Microsoft-one that comes in the form of two major product announcements that have tech pundits licking their chops for a clash of the computing titans.
In one corner, we have Google, which announced plans to develop a second Linux-based operating system to complement its Android smartphone platform. This new project, called Chrome OS, will consist of Google's Chrome Web browser layered atop a Linux kernel and will rely on the Web as its application development platform.
In the other corner, we have Microsoft, the undisputed market champion of the desktop operating system and keeper of the fat-client flame. It recently released a Technical Preview build of Office 2010, the latest iteration of its venerable productivity suite.
The fact that Google is pushing the envelope on Web applications isn't particularly provocative; the Web is, after all, Google's stock in trade. What's turning heads, however, is the apparent shot across Microsoft's bow that a bare-metal operating system from Google seems to represent.
I don't believe that Google expects Chrome OS to dethrone Microsoft's Windows any more than Google expects Chrome the Web browser to knock off Firefox and Internet Explorer. Rather, I believe that Chrome OS is exactly what Google says it is-an effort to shift application development away from any particular OS or hardware platform toward the platform of the Web.
Google is fiddling with client applications and OSes not because it intends to dominate those areas, but because if it didn't do the work, no one else would.
Take Apple, the company for which it's important enough to bind software to specific, Apple-branded hardware that the company bars generic x86 machines from running OS X and enforces an exclusive link between iTunes and the iPhone. The Web dissolves the link between applications and any specific sort of hardware, and, as a result, Apple would never be the company to lead us Web-ward.
Red Hat, Canonical and the many other commercial and noncommercial organizations that drive Linux and open source can't be counted on to lead application development to the Web, either, because most Web applications are not open source (although most are built out of open-source pieces and hosted on open-source systems).
As for Microsoft, the Web presents the Redmond giant with an innovator's dilemma. Microsoft makes the bulk of its money on a suite of fat applications (Office) running on a fat platform (Windows). Microsoft is so dominant in this thick-client world that it probably doesn't make sense for Microsoft to take the lead in moving us to a Web-centric world.
We didn't need Google to tell us that without any offline support option, Web applications would remain crippled when compared with traditional desktop alternatives. And yet, no one made an offline solution available until Google shipped Gears. We didn't need Google to tell us that multiple Web applications running under a single browser session must enjoy the same level of isolation as multiple applications running under a single OS, and yet, no one built this functionality into a browser until Google did with Chrome.
Frankly, by working to shift the center of application development to the Web, Google isn't only improving its own position-which it is-but Google is also doing Apple, the open-source community, Microsoft and the rest of us a big favor. In fact, I expect that the biggest beneficiary of whatever Web-as-a-platform progress Google makes will be Microsoft. After all, If Google succeeds in moving more of us to a Web-application-first computing model, whose applications do you suppose most of us will be running?
The most promising parts of Office 2010 are the strikingly rich Web versions of Microsoft's Office applications, which will run equally well on Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari (a close cousin to Google's Chrome). Similarly, with Exchange 2010, Microsoft is erasing IE's edge over other browsers and platforms for Outlook Web Access.
What's more, unlike the Web applications from Google and Zoho, Microsoft's Office Web applications will be available in both on-premises and hosted versions, and the hosted versions will be available from multiple providers.
Of course, shifting the center of application development gravity to the Web will pay dividends for Google, as well, but it won't place Google in a position of dominance. Rather, a shift to the open platform of the Web will enable Google to take a seat at a desktop computing table previously reserved for a party of one.
Executive Editor Jason Brookscan be reached at email@example.com.