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Google prepares to launch a PC operating system

Google and Microsoft have tap danced around the boxing ring for years, but Google is finally throwing a gigantic punch. The search giant has announced it is developing an operating system for the PC, a direct challenge to Microsoft’s Windows empire.

The new Google operating system, called Chrome OS — which The New York Times reported on before Google’s announcement — is based on its Chrome web browser, released nine months ago. It will give Google the foundation to challenge Microsoft from top to bottom, in almost every major kind of consumer and enterprise software. As such, it could unleash a fierce competitive battle and result in much bigger choices for consumers. You can already download Chrome and use it as your main browser, and replace whatever browser you’re using now, whether it be Internet Explorer or Firefox. Chrome even lets you interact with applications while offline, too — both applications built by Google and those built by other software makers.

In its announcement post, Google executives Sundar Pichai and Linus Upson say that more than 30 million people are using Chrome. They take a swipe at existing operating systems, saying they were designed for use when there was no web. They said it’s time to re-think operating systems, and that Chrome OS is Google’s answer. And it sounds pretty good: It’s an open source, fast and lightweight operating system, the company said. It will initially be targeted at netbooks, which are smaller and cheaper than laptops. Google will share the code later this year, and netbooks running the Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010. Google says it’s talking to partners now about the project.

The company’s focus for the Linux-based browser OS is speed, simplicity and security. In other words, don’t expect to play something extremely taxing such as a high-quality game on the system — at least not at first. The user interface is minimal and the web itself becomes the “user experience.”

Google continues: “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. It should just work.”

The Google software will work with both x86 (Intel)-based chips as well as ARM-based chips. In other words, there goes Intel’s lock on PC microprocessors. Multiple computer makers are working with Google already. (Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 7, on the other hand, which is also designed to run on the lower cost netbooks, won’t work on ARM-based devices.)

And since the Chrome OS is more web-oriented (compared to Microsoft Windows, which relies on the desktop), developers won’t have to limit themselves to building applications for just Chrome OS platform. Google doesn’t have to convince developers of applications for Windows to switch to Chrome, it just has to convince them to build web apps, which will work on Windows, Mac, Linux — and Chrome.

“All web-based applications will automatically work and new applications can be written using your favorite web technologies,” the Google post says. “And of course, these apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux thereby giving developers the largest user base of any platform.”

The post also says that Chrome OS is a new project, separate from Android, which “was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks. Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the web, and is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems.” At the same time, Google acknowledges, there may be some competition between Chrome and Android on netbooks, but it says, “Choice will drive innovation.”

The obvious goal here is to end Microsoft’s monopoly, but Google says it wants to make computers better, so that people can access their email instantly without waiting for browsers to start or computers to boot. People should not have to worry about backing up their files or losing a computer. Nor should they need to configure software and worry about constant software updates. Of course, if Google can make computers more web-oriented rather than desktop software-oriented, that could be a boon for all of its web services, from Gmail to Google Docs. This approach also matches Google Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra’s public skepticism about client-based software.

[By the way, next week Gundotra will be speaking on the first panel at MobileBeat2009, our mobile conference, moderated by VentureBeat editor Matt Marshall, and we're certain Chrome OS will be a theme. We'll also be discussing netbook trends at the conference.]

We’re reached out to Google for comment. Google already has productivity software — Gmail for email, Google Docs for word processing and spreadsheets software — all of which goes head to head with Microsoft’s Office suite. Coincidentally (or perhaps not!) Google’s softwar officially emerged from”beta” testing today. In each category, Google is trying to one-up Microsoft by making better use of the Internet and modern software design that arrived with the web. Google and Microsoft are also battling in mobile phones, as Google’s Android operating system is taking on Windows Mobile.

(Aside from Gondtra and Android’s Peter Chu, we’ll also have Microsoft representatives Jason Lim, from Microsoft’s mobile division, speaking at at the MobileBeat2009 conference).

But the battle is also going to have some interesting sideshows, as Google’s move could also bring it squarely into opposition with its sometime ally, Apple (which has dismissed rumors that it is working on a netbook, though that hasn’t stopped speculation that it’s developing a tablet computer). Intel is also developing a Moblin operating system for netbooks.)

The New York Times wrote that Marc Andreessen, who developed the first commercial browser and co-founded Netscape, said in a recent interview, “Chrome is basically a modern operating system.” Soon, the competition is going to be a three-way war, with Apple launching the Snow Leopard version of its Mac operating system, Microsoft launching its Windows 7 OS as a successor to Windows Vista, and now Google launching this Chrome-based OS. It’s about time competition returned to this market.

[image:photobucket/IgnoranceIsntbliss]