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Thursday, July 9, 2009

When OS worlds collide, will Google fulfill Netscape’s dream?

There was a time several years ago when technologists foretold the day when the then dominant Web browser, Netscape Navigator, would become a full-fledged computer operating system (OS) going head to head with Microsoft’s ubiquitous Windows operating system.

That day never came, of course. In fact, Netscape Navigator has all but disappeared. Yet the idea that a Web browser could become the foundation of an OS is very much alive and is set to become a reality in about 12 months—assuming Web search giant and chief Microsoft rival, Google, has its way.

On July 7, the Silicon Valley-based Internet software giant, Google Inc., announced Google Chrome OS, an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks—small laptop-like computers retailing for less than $500. Google Chrome OS will eventually run on desktop computers, offering a realistic and low-cost alternative to Microsoft Windows.

The new OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010. The Google Chrome OS project is separate from Google’s other operating system Android, which was designed to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks.

Few technologies in history have had the impact on as broad a cross-section of populations around the world as has the Internet and its most ubiquitous feature, the World Wide Web (the Web), invented in the early 1990s by Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, an English computer scientist and MIT professor.

By the formative years of the Web, 1991 through 1995, Microsoft had emerged as the leader in computer software technology, having vanquished all serious competitors who challenged its supremacy. All competitors, that is, except Netscape which by 1994 dominated the Web with its Netscape Navigator Web browser. Microsoft had failed to recognize the significance of the Web and its emerging technologies and had largely neglected to participate in the rise of the Internet.

Scrambling to recover from its strategic blunder, in 1995 Microsoft used a licensed version of Mosaic Web browser as the basis of Internet Explorer 1.0, which Microsoft released as part of its Windows 95 Plus! Pack. In that move, Microsoft engaged Netscape in a battle for Internet supremacy—a battle to Netscape’s death as it turned out.

During its struggle with Netscape, Microsoft wielded an almost invincible weapon in that it gave away for free a product that competed with the products that made up the great bulk of Netscape’s income: Navigator and its derivatives.

Google Inc. may now be set to turn the tables on Microsoft with Google Chrome OS, which is an open source product and will be free, while Microsoft’s Windows is a proprietary (closed) technology costing hundreds of dollars for its most robust versions.

Some analysts point out that the Google Chrome OS is just another Linux  distribution, and, in the past decade, Linux has failed to gain much traction in the consumer marketplace. Perhaps, but what seems to be different this time is that this Linux distribution has gained the backing of a big outfit, Google Inc., with deep pockets and office floors filled with brilliant computer scientists and engineers, not to mention a level of credibility with consumers that rivals Microsoft’s own.

With the release of Windows 7 set for October 22, Microsoft is sure to be scrambling to adjust its pricing strategies. Currently, a full version of Windows Vista Home Basic retails for US $199.95 and the Ultimate edition costs US $319.95. This profit-rich price structure will not prevail for long if the Google Chrome OS turns out to be a serious product—good news for consumers.

Microsoft already announced that, for a limited time, consumers in the United States, Canada and some other countries will be able to buy an “upgrade” copy of Windows 7 Home Premium for $49 or Windows 7 Professional for $99. The sale began on June 26, and will end on July 11 according to Microsoft. The Ultimate Edition is priced at $219 for the upgrade.

Already we are hearing about a multi-license “family pack” for Windows 7 at US $149.99. At $149.99, the Family Pack would save a buyer US $210 over three separate Home Premium upgrades. Such Windows pricing was unheard of in the pre-Google Chrome OS days when I purchased my retail copy of Windows Vista. Look for more consumer-friendly pricing offers from Microsoft in the next 24 months.

Is Microsoft destined to learn the old adage: live by the sword, die by the sort, i.e., live by the predatory pricing strategy, die by the predatory pricing strategy? I hope so.

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© 2009 Russell G. Campbell
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  1. As a linux user, I doubt very much a linux distro will ever get real traction in the home PC world - there's just too much under the hood know how needed. If Google can put out a distro that looks professional and is usable by people who have no interest in fooling around with the computer for hours just to make it print/scan/upload pictures from the camera/load my ipod etc.

    Bottom line, until printing manufacturers, camera manufacturers... ultimately until a whole slew of outside sources get on board, Chrome may become the best and most used linux distro, it will still be a linux distro.

    And, if the web browser Chrome is anything to go by, this will be a greatly inferior linux distro to many out there.

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