After years of coy denial, Google has announced the Chrome OS — its first full-on assault on the Windows desktop monopoly.
To blow away the hype of any major technology announcement, the best question is: 'What problem does it fix?'. The Chrome OS, Google says, is aimed at improving usability and security.
A very good choice of battleground: both are chronic pain points for Microsoft. Just look at the state of the anti-malware industry — where antivirus software seems as likely to cripple your computer as shield it — and the unhappy reactions to Vista and Office's usability changes. Consumers and enterprises are desperate for simplicity, safety and long-term reliability.
Then there's the question of applications. Diversity and compatibility here have been Windows's strongest shields against usurpers, but at the expense of manageability, flexibility and ease of use. Of late, too, Windows applications have run out of steam — the cloud and the iPhone both demonstrate different and surprisingly capable approaches. The iPhone App Store has created an enormous market from scratch, again by concentrating on usability and security. Google Apps — out of beta now — are strong. And Linux has an extremely good app-store mechanism built in already, through its unified approach to application download and management. Windows's strength becomes its weakness.
There is some good news for Microsoft. By announcing Chrome OS a year in advance, Google has effectively reset the clock on Linux on the netbook and given Ubuntu and its own Android a bad case of the Osborne Effect. Although netbook Linux has fallen short of early expectations, the momentum was still there; it's damaged now.
That should help Microsoft, but it also highlights the issues. The netbook is the beachhead to the desktop, and the desktop the beachhead to the enterprise: this synergy across work and home, once Microsoft's secret weapon, is another positive that begins to look like a liability.
Whether Microsoft can make use of this year of grace, having so far gracelessly fumbled its Windows strategy on netbooks, is another question. In Gazelle, it has what looks like a curiously similar technology to Chrome OS: both it and Chrome OS are unfinished, but it will be hard for Gazelle to do well out of the existing Windows ecosystem. Chrome OS, on the other hand, will be superbly served by the open-source environment.
It doesn't look good for Microsoft. Redmond has been hopeless in the face of the iPhone, and Bing, a massive marketing campaign with a fairly decent search engine attached, fails the 'What problem does it fix?' test. Yet there is a chance for the company, if it moves fast with determination and ruthlessness towards the market — which it can do — and towards itself, which is harder. On every front where Chrome OS attacks, Windows is Microsoft's weakness. That's the problem which must be fixed.
Chrome OS, whatever it turns out to be, proves Google isn't Microsoft's worst enemy. That honour belongs to Microsoft itself.