More About An Internet-Based OS

My recent articles on the Microsoft bid for Yahoo and what it means to Google have prompted numerous replies.

Visar takes exception to some of the Java comments made by a reader in Wednesday’s article. Specifically, he points out that it is not possible to write one complex application in Java and have it work across all operating systems. “To be convinced,” he wrote, “try and download a Java application and you will be prompted for the operating system you are going to use it on.”

Actually, the Wednesday article mentioned that Java requires a virtual machine specific to each platform. That’s why when you download a Java application, you must specify the operating system you’ll be using it on.

That requirement doesn’t take away Java’s usefulness as a cross-platform development tool. Straight from Java.com comes this summary:

Mature, extremely robust, and surprisingly versatile Java technology has become invaluable in allowing developers to:
  • Write software on one platform and run it on practically any other platform
  • Create programs to run within a web browser and web services
  • Develop server-side applications for online forums, stores, polls, HTML forms processing, and more
  • Combine Java technology-based applications or services to create highly customized applications or services
  • Write powerful and efficient applications for mobile phones, remote processors, low-cost consumer products, and practically any device with a digital heartbeat

Next, Visar wrote:

While Java has made great headway into Enterprise Application development and solutions, Microsoft is rapidly catching up with its own multi-platform .NET Framework. I would encourage you to research recent surveys as to what the new development is going to be based on for many new development projects for all of the Fortune 500 companies. .NET is Java on steroids, it allows for multiple languages to be compiled and run into Microsoft’s .NET Virtual Machine. And while Microsoft does not promote using .NET on non-Windows based platforms, there are open source movements which allow you to do so.

About Java vs. .NET, Joe Fontana at Network World wrote, “There is a lot of overlap in the capabilities of these development tools and that is the precise intersection where developers will raise their swords in religious wars. Generally, however, Microsoft’s .Net is more popular in rapid-application-development environments and Java finds its way into large scale enterprise projects, but even those lines are blurring rapidly.”

The main point from the perspective of business history, however, is that Microsoft saw the cross-platform ambitions of Java and Netscape as a serious enough threat to its hegemony over computing to kill the Netscape browser and create an alternative development platform, focused building applications to run in a Windows environment. It even says that at the top of the .NET website: “The .NET Framework is a development and execution environment that allows different programming languages & libraries to work together seamlessly to create Windows-based applications that are easier to build, manage, deploy, and integrate with other networked systems.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Microsoft doesn’t want alternatives to its computing paradigm, which is the default around the world. That part is natural. What I’ve been pointing out is that precisely that instinct is what’s behind the Yahoo bid. Microsoft says it’s about advertising. In part, perhaps, but it’s mainly about gathering as much firepower as it can to prevent the emergence of entirely internet-based operating systems and applications that require no Microsoft products. I’ve long contended that such alternatives are on the way from both Google and Yahoo, and then Microsoft made its bold move to buy Yahoo.

Visar concluded:

Let’s not forget the power of the status quo. How much training would it take to move to different platforms and software solutions? I would hate to live the day when I would have to re-train my parents to use a new operating system or Office Application suite, regardless of how similar they are to Microsoft’s. I have seen many great solutions die due to user’s attachment to older and much less efficient solutions.

There’s some truth to this, but I think it’s not insurmountable. The changes going on are deeper than just how to do the same old stuff a different way. The very reason people turn on computers is changing. The old standbys of creating a letter to be printed, mail-merging and printing it, and then saving the file in a heirarchical directory are done less and less. Most people these days are turning on their computers mostly to get online. Increasingly, they’re doing online what they used to do from their hard drives.

It won’t take too many more years of that before the mass realization that online is more important than hard drive takes effect. By then, alternatives like the gOS and Google Documents will be even better and with more users, creating the very network effect that has locked Windows on top.

Also, free software leading to cheap computers is a pretty powerful incentive for change. If Visar’s parents would like to communicate with their son long distance for free using Skype, maybe the $199 Everex gPC would be more compelling than a more expensive Windows machine. The machine was so popular that even Wal-Mart’s legendary inventory management system couldn’t keep it from selling out last fall.

About the gPC, CNET News.com’s Erica Ogg wrote on January 24:

It sounds simple, but most of what the average user wants to do with a computer these days can be done online: word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, photo editing, and more, which means less storage is less of an issue. You want e-mail? Gmail and the included GTalk instant-messaging feature are free. And Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets Web apps get all of your office productivity done online (though most of the three PCs have open-source versions of Microsoft Office). For watching videos, there’s YouTube and Hulu.com. And rather than downloading a photo editing tool, anyone can upload their photos to Flickr and use Picnik’s editing software right in the browser.

The success of devices like the gPC and Mirus Freespire–both are sold out at Wal-Mart and Sears.com, respectively–and even the more expensive and portable Eee PC, is a surprise to most.

“The success is, in part, driven by the fact that for people doing an increasing percentage of day-to-day tasks like e-mail in the context of software as a service, at that point it soon doesn’t matter what operating system you have,” said Redmonk’s O’Grady. “If a majority of (computer) usage is browsing the Internet and doing things like that, (Linux) is perfectly credible, perfectly usable.”

Some readers pointed out to me the fact that the gOS is just a customized version of Ubuntu Linux, which is free to anybody. About this, Glenn wrote, “I fail to see what this has to do with Google or Yahoo. Google could come out with a Linux distribution that may appeal to the masses but how would it make money? I can tolerate advertisements on a Web page but not on my desktop background, menu bar, etc.”

Many others said they, too, would balk at using a Google or Yahoo operating system that forced them to see ads every time they turned on their computers. I feel the same way. So far, though, Googl
e has been pretty good about keeping ads from interfering with its other free services, such as Google Earth. I would imagine that just building the Google search function into a free operating system would provide Google with enough additional revenue from its existing search advertising business to more than off-set the development costs and server costs to provide the OS. Plus, there could be add-on sales or premium versions as profit centers. After paying $200 or $300 for Windows Vista (depending on the version), most people would not mind at all paying Google or Yahoo $50 for a deluxe version of their internet-based OS.

I don’t know exactly how the revenue model would work, but there are ways other than advertising to extract profit from an operating system.

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