Chrome OS poses long-term threat to Microsoft

But it will be 'years and years' until it competes with Windows, say analysts

Google's entry into the operating system market poses a long-term threat to Microsoft, analysts who cover the maker of Windows said today.

"Will Microsoft be worried? Microsoft will always be worried, whether it should or not," said Michael Silver, Gartner's primary operating system analyst. "Microsoft, after all, is one of the more paranoid companies around."

Late Tuesday night, Google announced that it would launch its long-anticipated operating system, based on the Linux kernel and built around its Chrome browser, sometime in the second half of 2010, more than a year from now. The new operating system will be dubbed "Google Chrome OS."

From Silver's seat, the news will make Microsoft, already locked in competition with Google over search, take notice. But the horizon of a face-to-face OS battle is way out there, he said.

"It will take quite a long time for Google to become a competitor to Microsoft," he said. "In the enterprise, for example, over 70 per cent of the applications used require Windows. And even at home, things like personal finance still require Windows. So, while I think this is a longer-term threat to Microsoft, it's definitely not in the short term."

Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, agreed. "It's hard to see this as a threat to Microsoft," Cherry said. "Sure, it could take some sales of netbooks, and previously those netbooks might have had a version of Windows, but it seems like this is not really a platform for applications. The Web is the application."

Both Silver and Cherry, in fact, pointed out that, according to the few pieces of information Google's disclosed so far, applications written for the future Google OS would also run on Windows, or even on Apple's Mac OS X.

The Google executives who announced the company's push into OS waters made that clear. "These apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux," said Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management, and Linus Upson, engineering director, in their blog post last night.

"Applications written for Google will run on all standard browsers, so you don't even need to use Chrome OS," Cherry pointed out.

That's not to say either analyst was panning Google's move. Both gave the search giant kudos or were confident the company could make a play in the OS arena. "The momentum is on Google's side," said Silver, "because apps are moving away from being OS-specific. But it's taking years. And years." "As someone who likes operating systems, I'm excited," added Cherry. "This is great news."

Even so, everyone should just step back a moment, cautioned Cherry. "While Google wants to move very, very quickly, there's a couple of things that jumped out at me, and have me worried," Cherry said.

"We didn't get to where we are with Windows because Microsoft set out to build a slow, massive operating system," he said. "They kept adding functionality."

The same will happen to Google, he predicted. "What Google will face is application developers who say, 'Here's what we'd like to do,' and Google will realize that their OS doesn't support that. And then they'll expose an API or add functionality. And lo and behold, it's a little bigger."

More troubling, Cherry said, is Google's promise that its OS would be security worry-free.

Pichai and Upson did make some brash claims on that front. "As we did for the Google Chrome browser, we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don't have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates," they said. "It should just work," they added, stealing a phrase Mac users often spout.

"That's just wishful thinking," said Cherry. "Any OS that's capable of doing something can be exploited."

Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment on Google's announcement.

That didn't stop Cherry from giving the company a bit of advice. "Microsoft has to deliver on the promises it's made, including Windows 7. More importantly, it has to deliver on the work that's being done under the general heading of Azure," he said, referring to the company's cloud-based version of its operating system. "Deliver on that and on Office Web," Cherry advised.

Rumors circulated today that Microsoft will make major announcements revolving around both Azure and Office Web next Monday when it kicks off its annual Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans.

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