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  • The Beleaguered Microsoft: The Evidence Mounts

    July 14th, 2009

    Although I remain skeptical how it’ll all turn out, the top executives at Microsoft must be freaking upon learning that Google plans to build the Chrome operating system. Worse, that it’ll be deployed first for netbooks and eventually to regular note-books and desktop computers as well.

    Most of the online chatter doesn’t really mention Apple much, beyond the fact that Google CEO Eric Schmidt might have to reconsider his position as a member of Apple’s Board of Directors. Right now he will recuse himself from sessions dealing with the iPhone, because of Google’s Android operating system. So if Mac OS X is discussed, the theory goes that Schmidt will have to stay away from those discussions as well, which more or less excludes him from a large portion of those meetings. Well, that’s something for Apple and Google to figure out, since it has little to do with any practical issues regarding Google’s forthcoming OS.

    Now Google’s focus is primarily on Web-based applications, such as Gmail and Google Apps. The real competitor to Microsoft is the latter, since they are struggling to compete with Google for search advertising and other areas. Indeed, Office 10 for Windows will be offered in an ad-sponsored online version, clearly a reaction to Google. Originality is not in their DNA, but when they see someone else succeeding in a product segment they want to exploit, you just know they are going to try to do something about it.

    This doesn’t mean that Google’s new OS is a sure thing. It’s not. Yes, it is built upon a secure Linux foundation, which means it’ll be far more robust out of the box than any version of Windows. Indeed, it may well be that focusing on Web-based applications will serve a certain class of customers. But the PC industry is too heavily focused on desktop apps on the Mac and Windows platforms to give Google much elbow room right now. Then again, just giving Microsoft conniptions ought to be sufficient to make this initiative worthwhile.

    From Apple’s standpoint, they have been pushing hard for industry standards for much of what they do. So it would seem that anything you can run from the browser under the Chrome OS will work on a Mac as well, and on a Windows PC for that matter. Well, maybe Microsoft will try to block them on Internet Explorer, despite the fact that the new version, version 8, supposedly adheres more closely to Internet standards.

    But it’s not just browsers and operating systems where Microsoft is experiencing a slow, inexorable decline. They haven’t done so well with their mobile phone initiative either. Windows Mobile is an afterthought when the media pundits speak of smartphones. The chatter is all about the iPhone, the BlackBerry, the latest Android-based device and, of course, the Palm Pre. How fascinating it is to see real competition in this space, rather than face an 800-pound gorilla that spends a large part of its time beating down any competition that dares invade its territory.

    Certainly Microsoft’s woes started big-time when the iPod arrived, and Apple rapidly managed to carve for itself a hefty majority of the market, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the usual naysayers. Microsoft tried working with the usual group of third-party manufacturers and failed. They tried the Zune and it was a failure too. The lifetime of the dedicated media playing is coming to a close, except, perhaps, for the iPod touch, which is really just a small personal computer.

    When it comes to the iPhone, Apple’s ace in the hole, beyond a great user interface, is the App Store. With 1.5 billion downloads in the first year and 65,000 selections, I suspect only the Windows platform has more apps available. What Apple has done is simply amazing, and no other company, even with a larger share of the smartphone market, has been able to come close.

    Of course Apple tried and tested a lot of the basic structure of the App Store in building the world’s largest music retailer, iTunes. So it wasn’t quite as hard to just expand its capabilities to accommodate the iPhone and iPod touch. Imagine what would have been involved if they had to invent it all over again from scratch?

    Microsoft? They’d love to build a true competitor, but maybe they are just left to recall the famous movie phrase from the late Marlon Brando, “I coulda been a contender.”

    This isn’t to say that Microsoft is doomed, though it may look that way. Their search engine flavor of the week, Bing, has gotten off to a good start and is apparently taking a tiny bit of market share away from Google. Bing has also garnered fairly good reviews from the critics, so maybe it has potential.

    There are also reports that Microsoft has a Web-based or lightweight operating system on the back burner, and it might very well get accelerated development if the Chrome OS really takes off. On the other hand, I don’t see Google appealing to more than a core segment of power users and curiosity seekers. That is, unless or until the public embraces the Chrome OS and decides it’s really a good thing.

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