The more I look at what Google is doing, the more convinced I am that we're witnessing the birth of the next Microsoft. Seems to me that Microsoft is more interested in defending itself against new ideas than actually coming up with them, and over the next few years Google will be the company that Microsoft will most need to defend itself against. I have to give credit to Google for using seemingly simple ideas such as the Google Toolbar to achieve their goals (using IE's ActiveX capabilities to take on Microsoft – you've got to love that).
The big problem for Google – and the big advantage for Microsoft – is that the vast majority of computer users have all of their data on their Windows-powered desktop computers. So what does Google do? Try to get people to move their data to the web (through Google, of course). Google has already identified email and digital photos as two of the primary uses of desktop computers, and they've responded with Gmail and (to a much lesser degree, so far) Picasa. Then they release the Google Desktop, which further blurs the line between the web and your desktop by enabling you to search your hard drive using the familiar, simple Google interface. What will we see next? GBrowser? GDocuments? Regardless, Windows is being marginalized piece by piece, and Microsoft can't stop it. The internet is the next OS, and Google is becoming a primary force behind it.
I have a lot of concerns about this as I look many years ahead. Yeah, most of us like Google now, and we're glad to finally see a company really take on Microsoft. A number of developers want Google to win simply because we look forward to playing a role in the development of an internet OS, and Google is making it happen. But what are we actually building here? A lot of people in my profession wear rose-colored glasses and believe we're helping to make information free to the world, but some of the early proponents of television believed the same thing. Are we really just building the next version of TV, one even more powerful because it knows your name and shopping habits? More to the point, are we simply creating a potent tool for controlling the next generation of mass-market sheep? I've been told I'm too young to be so cynical, but I like to think I'm too old to be so naïve as to ignore this possibility.
So what can programmers such as myself do now to make sure this doesn't happen? I honestly don't know. Some would argue that I switch to building open source software, but (no pun intended) I don't buy those arguments. I believe that open standards are far more important than open source, since open standards mean you can share your data regardless of whether you access it through commercial or open source software (and regardless of which OS you're using). The software doesn't matter: the data does.
With HomeSite, TopStyle and FeedDemon, I've relied on – and promoted – open standards. I would hate to look back and realize that all I really did was play a small role in helping build yet another tool for keeping people fat, dumb and happy.