Okay, so Google just dropped the biggest industry news in quite some time, that they are going to enter the netbook OS market in 2010. No doubt a tit-for-Bing. As a long time observer of Microsoft from the inside, here’s my quick reaction on the development:
WHY IS THIS SCARY TO MICROSOFT:
The biggest question from people seems to be: So what, another free linux distro with browser on top. Whoop-dee-doo. True, but it’s not the technology that matters here. The benefits to the netbook maker is two fold: One: Google may well share some advertising revenue with the netbook maker if they go with Chrome OS rather than a free Linux distro. There’s plenty of precedence to this: AOL used to pay OEMs to put their crap on the PC with a bounty; Google is rumored to have done the same for Google Pack and Google Desktop. And let’s not forget that Firefox was paid to use Google as the default search engine under very similar circumstances. Two: the netbook makers couldn’t be happier to use a Google branded OS rather than some Linux distro that no consumer has ever heard of. The Google brand is a trusted consumer brand. And the OEMs would love to shift all the bug fixing and version tracking stuff to Google instead of hiring its own people to do the work.
With netbooks’ incredible growth, estimated at 50MM units by 2012, Google can really take a big bite out of Window’s revenue.
Marc Andreesen famously said in the Netscape heydays that they will “reduce windows to a set of poorly debugged device drivers.” Ever since that point in the mid 1990s, the idea of an OS that’s squarely centered around the Web has been a quest for the industry. Things have progressed far enough along, on the OS, applications, Software-As-A-Service, and hardware fronts, that this is becoming a reality.
Andreesen was visionary in his thinking about how the browser will become the center of the universe, but he was a decade and a half early. But now the entire world is ready. Today, you can do any task needed with just a browser with no access to the OS: Email, IM, facebook/twitter; check, check, check, check. Movies and Music? Netflix streaming, YouTube, Last.fm and Pandora. Document editing; use Zoho and Google Docs. You don’t need Photoshop anymore when you have online editors like Picnik. Games? Not the super hardcore stuff, but you can play casual games with Flash, and of course multiplayers too.
Compare that to what you can do with a PC with no connectivity. Sure, you can punch some formulas into Excel and do an Unsharp Mask on Photoshop, but you can’t send that doc or photo to someone or post it online. You can’t read news, follow twitters, play Mafia Wars with your peeps, or watch Hulu.
On the hardware front, the netbook’s popularity, driven largely because of the low MSRP starting at $300, has done two things: One, the margin on these netbooks are so slim, that even the cheapest Windows license ends up being a huge percentage of the cost. No wonder then that the cheapest netbooks don’t ship with Windows, but instead ships a free linux distro. Two: the hardware specs on the netbooks are not very robust, and every byte of storage, and every background process counts. Open source Linux can be customized to the hilt to do what you need and no a single thing more, whereas with Windows you don’t have a lot of flexibility to slim down the OS.
MICROSOFT’S LIKELY RESPONSES:
Microsoft has been anticipating this move for years, but frankly none of its tactics have worked out very well. Windows is in a bad position with Vista, and not until Windows 7 comes along at the end of 2009 will it start to recover its standing. Windows Embedded and/or Windows Mobile is probably the biggest disappointment. It should have been the light weight equivalent to Windows, thriving on less powerful hardware than those found on a PC. Instead, it has made absolutely no progress in both the smartphone space nor netbook space, leaving the flank wide open for Google’s attack at the low end.
Microsoft’s likely response is to ship a slimmed down version of Windows 7 for netbook, and just make it as cheap as possible. But it is not a very simple maneuver: If price for Win7 Lite is lowered to compete with Chrome OS, it will put pricing pressure on the other higher end version of Win 7. It’ll be tempted to cut features for Win7 Lite so that it doesn’t cannibalize its higher end siblings, but then it makes the product less interesting to netbook OEMs. It’s a darn hard near impossible scenario to optimize for, and this trade-off will no doubt consume Ballmer, Sinofsky and others for years to come. That’s why it’s such a good move on Google’s part to put MS off balance.
It’ll be an ironic move, but I expect Microsoft to start pressuring US and EU governments to investigate if Chrome OS is anti-competitive. Free isn’t anti-competitive, because the Open Source movement has establish that level of pricing. But subsidizing an attack on the OS by Google’s dominant search/advertising revenues may be construed as anti-competitive.
And of course, Microsoft will continue to emphasize the power of local applications running on Windows vs. the Chrome web-centric model. It has done a good job with this message back in the late 90’s, when they were concerned about the rise of Java VM and network computers. But times have changed, and I think on the consumer front it will have a much harder time dissuading people from using a browser centric OS.