SAN JOSE â€” Google’s dramatic announcement Wednesday that it is developing its own operating system seems designed to target Microsoft squarely in its Achilles’ heel: the shift to Web-based computing that threatens the very core of Microsoft’s business.
Google’s arrow took the form of a compact Linux-based operating system that will be based on Chrome, a Web browser Google previously developed. Normally, this might seem to be a shot in the dark. Microsoft has long dominated the market for operating systems and has a history of successfully standing up to Linux competitors.
But analysts say that this time could be different. “What is important is the movement of software (programs) from the fat desktop client to the Web,” said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata. “The real threat to Microsoft is that Google will keep Microsoft from being successful in new areas.”
New areas, for example, like netbooks, low-end portable PCs that are increasingly popular with cash-strapped consumers. In a blog post Wednesday, Google executives Sundar Pichai and Linus Upson wrote that the company would first offer the new operating system to consumers on netbooks in the second half of 2010. If all goes well, the new operating system will eventually power full-size desktops.
Microsoft did not respond to a request for a comment about Google’s announcement, but it is keenly aware of both the technology and business challenge it faces as more and more people treat their browsers as the single most important application on their computer. “When is a browser not a browser?” an employee of Microsoft Research wrote in a blog post at the end of last month, describing a new Microsoft Web browser called Gazelle scheduled to be announced in August that is actually an operating system itself. Google beat Microsoft to the punch.
“Google is trying to take Microsoft out at the knees,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group.
Traditionally, Microsoft has had the largest user base. Indeed, the size of its user base has allowed the Redmond software giant to reign supreme over the industry for two decades, analysts said. And, it could be its best weapon to blunt the attack of Google’s Chrome operating system.
“It’s a long road before this thing is delivered and then years before it has a possibility of putting a dent in Microsoft’s install base,” said Michael Silver of Gartner.
Google so far has had mixed results getting manufacturers to adopt Android, an operating system that is designed to work across smaller devices such as mobile phones and set-top boxes. It has discussed the Chrome operating system with major PC manufacturers and asked them for feedback, but none would acknowledge plans to make a Chrome-based PC.
“We are studying Chrome,” Hewlett-Packard said in an e-mail statement. “HP wants to understand all the OS choices in the marketplace that may be used by its competitors, and remains open to considering various approaches to meet its own customer needs.”
Analysts said working with Google would likely complicate a manufacturers’ relationship with Microsoft.
But Haff said that it doesn’t necessarily matter to Google whether or not either its Android operating system or its Chrome operating system is widely used. As long as Google can get more people to embrace Web-based computing, Google wins. “The individual nuts and bolts of how that happens are far less important to Google than that it happens,” he said.
Contact Elise Ackerman at 408-271-3774. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/eliseackerman