Google vs. Microsoft: Haven't we seen this movie?

Shades of 1995: A Web-based upstart threatens to topple Windows from its throne

By Andrew Leonard
Published July 9, 2009 9:31PM (EDT)

Clash of the Titans! One Operating System to Rule Them All! Google Drops A Nuclear Bomb on Microsoft!

It is a tribute to Google's extraordinary mindshare that the company's announcement of a new operating system that won't be available for another year spawned an instantaneous outpouring of over-the-top commentary so frenzied that I was immediately flung into a fit of browser-war flashbacks, circa 1995. Google is a much more formidable threat to Microsoft than Netscape ever was, but it is remarkable how similar the contours of the current explosion of hype are to the babble that preceded Netscape's astonishing IPO in August, 1995. The Web, we were told back then, was sure to dethrone Microsoft, and Netscape would be the flagbearer of the revolutionaries.

Netscape got stomped, of course, and Microsoft is still hanging around, dominating the vast majority of computers in use on the planet. So excuse me if I counsel wait-and-see to those who already are imagining Redmond as nothing more than a smoking crater oozing radioactive fallout.

And yet: Anyone old enough to remember the sturm und drang of 1995, but who pays attention to how kids are growing up on the Internet today, has to admit that that while Netscape and scores of other would-be Microsoft competitors lost all their battles, the Web is winning the war. My daughter's first step after turning on the computer is a trip to Facebook. My son's is to a Web-based online gaming network that connects him to all his friends. Both of them have Gmail accounts and neither particularly cares whether they are doing their homework in Google Docs online or Microsoft Word on the desktop. It's all the same to them.

Until the WiFi drops. At which point they become lost souls, cut loose from all online moorings. Dad! The Internet is broken. Fix it! Fix it! Fix it!

No matter what happens to the "Chrome" operating system, Google, so far, is on the right side of history -- provided there's ample Internet connectivity. Microsoft has always tried to figure out how to protect its established business model while venturing onto the Web. But Google is indigenous to the Web. When Microsoft gave away its browser free with every instance of Windows, it was considered an antitrust violation by competitors. But when Google says it plans to give away the entire operating system for free -- no one blinks. The real shocker would be if the company announced plans to charge for Chrome. (And yes, I know, the Justice Department is exploring whether there is a basis for an antitrust case against Google. But not because Google's consumer-facing products are free. That's just taken for granted.)

I will make no speculation as to whether the Chrome OS will succeed in grabbing market share from Microsoft. After all, my daughter wants a Mac Air and my son scoffs at anything that can't run the latest high-end PC game: (Translation: Windows). But they also assume that everything they need should be available to them, for free, when they turn on their computer. If it isn't Google, someone will deliver that to them.

And then there's this, from the original Google announcement:

We hear a lot from our users and their message is clear -- computers need to get better. People want to get to their email instantly, without wasting time waiting for their computers to boot and browsers to start up. They want their computers to always run as fast as when they first bought them. They want their data to be accessible to them wherever they are and not have to worry about losing their computer or forgetting to back up files. Even more importantly, they don't want to spend hours configuring their computers to work with every new piece of hardware, or have to worry about constant software updates. And any time our users have a better computing experience, Google benefits as well by having happier users who are more likely to spend time on the Internet.

I've heard those promises before. I'm still waiting. But if Google delivers, the world is theirs. No nuclear bombs required.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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