Google takes direct aim at Microsoft

But can the search giant hit the mark with new OS

Google wrapped up a flurry of activity positioning itself for a bold run at Microsoft's core businesses, but industry watchers say the search giant has a long road ahead.

Google this week wrapped up a flurry of activity positioning itself for a bold run at Microsoft's core businesses, but industry watchers say the search giant has a long road ahead.

Google this week unveiled its Chrome OS project, an open-source, Linux-based lightweight operating system for Internet-centric computing. The announcement comes on the heels of Google's removal of the beta labels from its Google Apps services, its debut of Google Voice, and the launch of an industry-rallying campaign called "Let's make the Web faster."

Google is targeting Microsoft's core businesses – the client OS and Office – that earned the company nearly $36 billion in 2008, and Microsoft's emerging online services strategy

Google's rapid fire public relations over the past two weeks wasn't so much coincidence as it was the fact that Microsoft is set to make an online services splash this week at its annual conference of partners, a juggernaut Google may need to emulate to be successful.

In addition, Microsoft is just over three months from delivering its next operating system – Windows 7, which includes a version for the netbook platform Google is targeting with Chrome OS. Google's OS won't ship for 18 months.

Google clearly is rushing to get its strategy and its services aligned for the next round of battle with the software giant, which has a product pipeline set to gush between now and the end of 2010. The questions, however, are how ready is Google, can it create something compellingly different and innovative, and if it does, what size dent can it make in the Microsoft armor?

The ramp up was slow as the Chrome OS announcement came in a very un-Google-like fashion, arriving without any active code and in the form of blogware.

"With Windows 7 about to ship, it would have been better for Google to release, rather than simply announce, an alternative for the netbook market," wrote Laurent Lachal, open source director at Ovum, in a research note. "Key to Google's OS success will be its ability to create a strong community around it. This is going to be difficult. A rethink of the project based on an alliance/convergence effort with the Ubuntu [Linux] community could help."

The Chrome OS introduction raises more questions than it answers. Google has yet to explain exactly how it will function and why it will be better than current browser access to Web-based applications.

The big challenge will be to prove that the operating system works and works well enough toIDC forecasts that Microsoft will ship 117 million copies of Windows in 2010 with half being Windows 7.

trigger significant adoption.

Chipping at those numbers will be difficult since Google is only targeting the netbook subset of the personal computing market.

Experts say Google must create an exciting rush of innovation comparable to what Apple's iPhone achieved.

"This could be an opportunity to take this stuff in the browser and bring it closer to the desktop environment and make things appear to run natively from the desktop," says Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC. "This is speculation, but if Google could make that kind of leapfrog forward they could do something really interesting here."

Working in Google's favor is that it plans to offer the operating system for free to OEMs that on average pay Microsoft $40 (consumer) to $90 (business) for a copy of Windows.

But pricing doesn't discount the task Google will have building a partner network to provide applications, drivers and other peripherals to work with Chrome OS netbooks and eventually the desktop PC version Google plans to offer.

Google is already getting words of encouragement from open-source advocates such as the Linux Foundation and potential rivals such as Red Hat.

"Open source has proven to be a better model of development and the platform of the future. We look forward to seeing how [Google's] project will progress," said Leigh Day, senior director of global corporate communications for Red Hat.

But the support Google needs doesn't center on furthering the cause for Linux and open source.

"The real critical issue for now is not how well can Google create a netbook OS, it is more how can they build out a very robust and interesting partner infrastructure for building applications and tools that PC users depend on every day," says Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT. "We have to see some major-league ISVs buy into the Web-delivery apps that Chrome OS devices are built for."

That part of the equation is another area where Google has an awful lot of ground to make up on Microsoft, which will welcome more than 7,500 partners to its annual Partner Conference next week.

It is there that Microsoft is expected to unveil pricing for its Azure cloud computing platform and release preview code for its Office Web Apps. The Office Web Apps, slated to ship early next year with Office 2010, are one reason Google last week removed the beta tag from its Google Apps.

"For too many companies looking at commercial Gmail, the beta label was like a blinking neon light that flashed 'amateur, amateur…' " said Matt Cain, an analyst with Gartner.

Microsoft plans to weave a story of integration between the Web-based Office apps and the traditional desktop version.

The Office Web Apps will provide synchronization of e-mail, calendar and contact items between Web browsers, including Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari; desktop applications through the Outlook client; and mobile devices from Microsoft, RIM and Apple.

It's a powerful link that could help Microsoft stem any bleeding from its Office install base to Web-based productivity applications Google will offer using Chrome OS as the interface and Google Apps on the backend.

"If you could run [Microsoft] Office on Linux or on a Google operating system, I think the other operating systems would be much more appealing," says Tom Amrhein, CIO at Forrester Construction in Rockville, Md. "The reason Microsoft has a good grasp on the desktop has less to do with the desktop than its complete domination of the office space."

Microsoft will tighten that grip with other innovations that nip at features of Google Voice that have limited integration with Google Apps.

At the Partner Conference it is expected to show Office Web Apps support for voice mail delivery to e-mail in-boxes, either via audio or transcription of the message into text. Users also will be able to communicate using IM integrated with a user's desktop Outlook address book.

Ironically, Google is in a position Microsoft has often been caught in when it has shipping and non-shipping products that need to be integrated to support a grand platform vision.

Only time will tell if Google can pull it all together.

"We do not expect Google Chrome OS to take over the world – it is a bit late for that," said Ovum's Lachal.

Network World Senior Writer Jon Brodkin contributed to this report.

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