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History shaped Google's Trojan Horse

Unravelling the Chrome masterplan... with Windows 2.03

Google has two powerful arguments for software as a (Google) service: it may be cheaper than licensing Office, and less complex than running client/server in your office. Uncannily, that's the two things that helped swing the market Microsoft's way, too. Migrating to a GUI required more powerful and expensive PCs, but it would save large amounts in training costs.

Microsoft then played its ace: it began bundling a not-very-integrated "suite" of applications for around $500 - less than the price of dBase or 1-2-3, and that's before you'd bought the essentially companion software such as Clipper. In a recession, that started to look quite attractive.

Windows also offered a "cockroach" alternative to some of the grander vapourware designs on offer. Rather than wait for the Next Big Paradigm Shift (there were many of these vision-things being touted back in 1990, invariably including the words "Object" and "Architecture"), users smuggled in a copy of Windows for Workgroups and tried to get it running on the company network. Google services have the same appeal: people simply start using them.

So will Google succeed? Well, you tell me (below). But your 80s throwback will offer a couple of perspectives, that I've looked for this week, but failed to find.

Clever is not clairvoyant

One of these is that "the company that knows secrets about the future™" is a myth created by the press - particularly the glossy end of the US business press. It's a powerful narrative, and suits their lazy writers, but the reality turns out to be very different.

Years later, we discover the company was simply blundering on in a state of chaos, slapping tactics together until they passed for a strategy, and winging it. And so a consequence of this myth-making is that it makes the poster child - the Google or the Microsoft - look much cleverer and more coherent than it really is. It's an elaborate game of bluff.

At the time Windows offered business a cheap and cheerful "standard", but Microsoft's success was not based on technical excellence - on any unique knowledge of 32-bit computing or excellence in UI design - but rather more to its iron grip on the PC distribution channel. PC manufacturers paid Microsoft whether they shipped MS-DOS and Windows with the PC or not. So why ship anything else? Antipathy to IBM helped Microsoft enormously, too, of course.

But I simply don't see where Google has the same grip over routes to market that Microsoft could exploit. And while costs can certainly be lowered by throwing away all your useful software, I don't see that Microsoft generates the same animosity that IBM once did. I'm confident that we'll be using web services more, as they get richer and more functional.

I'll predict that Linux will thrive as a kind of bootloader on low-end PCs designed to use these services. And that Microsoft, as a result, will face continual margin pressure on Office and Windows in the years ahead. But I can't see either Microsoft, or the idea of local applications, fading very far from view.

While much of the press has creamed itself over Chrome this week, it's almost rude to point this next one out. When there's one computer serving the planet - even if it's Google's - that's a single point of failure.

And in that sense, Google's vision of computing looks less like a piece of risk insurance, than a very big risk indeed. ®

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