Ramblings on Google and the Internet OS

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.

34 thoughts on “Ramblings on Google and the Internet OS

  1. Hey, but at least, as far as FeedDemon goes, its a nice tool for keeping us fat, dumb, and happy :O) (i can’t speak on the others as I haven’t really used them).
    Though, to be more serious, i agree with your comment on open standards as oppposed to open source in regards to importance.

  2. Nick, I’m glad to see someone publicly thinking about the responsibility we as tool makers have towards encouraging a positive contribution to culture. I don’t know if we’re any closer to having *answers* to these questions, but I can’t help but think that at least being aware of the concern can help.

  3. hmm, I don’t get the concern.
    I agree that Microsoft seem to be protecting and preventing more than anything lately and there is a lot of excitement around where Google will go next, but I already host a lot of my ‘functionality’ remotely (personal wiki, PM software, etc). I think what Google (and other developers) are doing is making the idea of an internetOS more accessible.
    What’s changed/changing?

  4. Gary, I left a lot out of my post to avoid a huge article, which upon re-reading might not have been the best idea since so many of my assumptions have been left unsaid.
    In a nutshell, my assumption is that the internet OS of the future will replace your desktop OS, your television, your newspaper, etc., to become (by far) the primary source of information. Today, TV is widely used by the government and industry to provide only the information that will help sell their ideas and products. So what happens when the TV knows who you are? If you look at this 10 years down the road, it doesn’t seem too scary. But 50 years, 100 years, from now, what will we have built? I just want to make sure we know what we’re building.

  5. Nick, ah now I get where you’re coming from. Well in that case you’re correct in that open standards are a priority, and if they continue then I wouldn’t have too many concerns as it would be pretty impossible to control content to any great extent. Microsoft seem to have pinned their colours to the mast with DRM, but it feels like a losing initiative.

  6. This is a fascinating subject and I must jump in!
    May I say that I supect Governments are already ‘twiddling’ some buttons? Internet News is still derived from traditional sources.
    Google has become the definitive search engine, but has certain frailties as the Internet becomes more and more diluted. I’ve never seen so many web directories… even when looking for a blue chip Company!
    ‘What will we have built’? – What we deserve!
    Has Google floated yet? Watch for a bid from Microsoft!

  7. This argument is déjà vu all over again! Certainly in the United Kingdom, 6 or 7 years ago more or less the same things were being said about set-top boxes (replace “Google” and “Microsoft” with “Cable and Wireless Communications” and “Telewest”); they would run the cable company’s proprietary software, shut out messy desktop operating systems and provide a “walled garden” which was, in effect, a corporate Intranet. In the end, they were a utter failure; their software wasn’t good enough and people saw through the marketing.
    From a “European” perspective more likely than the scenario you offer, IMO, is a move – to a certain extent – from PCs to mobile phones as the primary means of accessing the Internet; communication could become largely ephemeral and between small numbers of people known to one another via their address books, which is dangerous in itself as a sort of “voluntary memory hole”, to gratuitously bring Nineteen Eighty-Four into the argument. (There would be relatively little, if any, information persisting over time or viewable by anyone).

  8. Alastair, it’s definitely déjà vu, but this time I believe the chances of success are good (but not guaranteed). Set-top boxes sounded great to marketers, software companies (one in particular) and cable companies, but they didn’t offer much to the consumer. An internet OS, on the other hand, has a number of benefits, especially as wireless (ie: mobile) access becomes more prevalent.

  9. Wouldn’t you have an interest in seeing desktop software remain powerful, as opposed to Web services like Bloglines?

  10. Xofis, my interest is in seeing computers make our lives easier and enable us to communicate more openly. When the web as a platform is more capable of producing desktop-like applications, I’ll be there. For now, though, I believe desktop apps whose data is online (RSS readers, for examples) are the best solution.

  11. I wouldn’t be so quick to write off Microsoft. They have an enormous amount of leverage with the OS. Google spent a year building a tool that works with Microsoft’s Word, Excel & Powerpoint. This type of piggy-backing approach simply won’t scale – especially when the other side is holding the cards.
    For now, they’re going to have to play on Microsoft’s field. Nothing can stop MS from changing the rules or even moving the lines. Does Microsoft have to react with its own revolutionary product? Not really, all they have to do is keep moving.
    Another point is the powerful marriage between the major OEM’s and MS. Most people do not buy Microsoft’s OS off the shelf. It’s already on their Dell out of the box.
    I think it’s WAY too early to write MS off.

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  13. Rich, I certainly don’t write Microsoft off – after all, I’m still developing Windows-based software. But it really does strike me how much of what Microsoft does is based not on creating something new and useful, but instead on defending their turf. That can only last for so long.
    Scoble recently posted a “Message in a bottle to Bill Gates” (http://radio.weblogs.com/0001011/2004/10/07.html#a8370 ) in which he recommended that Microsoft get behind the content-creation trend. If they can do this – and focus on their end users instead of the DRM needs of Hollywood – they could really turn things around.

  14. Nick,
    after the warm welcome last time, I had to return :-)
    I think where things may be different from radio and television, and the early days of the PC, is that there is a recognition of the importance of standards, there is a strong, though decentralized movement that promotes and supports standards, and there are many many stake holders (like Bradsoft and westciv, but also much bigger organizations, and a strong support in Government around thew world) who contribute significantly to the development and growth of these standards.
    I’d argue that is seems much more difficult for one organization to hijack the standards process than it is to build an industry “standard” platform which is closed and controlled by that one organisation.
    But this is no doubt a battle which will have to be fought and won a hundred times, and you are right in warning we can assume no one is a good guy. We all have to keep the good guys honest.

  15. John, to me the problem is that most people understandably don’t care about standards – they just want something that works. As we’ve seen in the past, someone with a large user base (like Microsoft or Apple) can subvert standards by providing proprietary tools.
    Beyond that, though, my bigger concern is that even if everyone uses standards, there’s no guarantee that the internet won’t become the next TV, a wasteland that only provides interesting content to those who actively search for it.

  16. I think we will always see people who are hungry, sharp, and wanting. Does FeedDemon contribute to that? Maybe, maybe not. But I think that it’s a bit too much to say that your (excellent) software products really do have much of an impact either way or another. I realize that your forte is software, but it seems like the big changes happen at home and in institutions like schools..

  17. Ralph, I don’t think for a minute that my work has much of an impact in the long run – I’m a niche player, at best. But I still want to believe that what I’m doing is for the greater good.

  18. I’ve been waiting for internet centric computing for years. What I didn’t see coming was the possibility of the net being controlled by a small handful of companies like google. I wholly expected it to be more competitive and decentralized. While I read my mail with Squirrelmail, and prefer web based applications like bloglines to desktop based apps like feed demon, I don’t want to give all my data to a thirdparty who’s primary function is indexing data. That’s why I don’t understand all the hub-bub around gmail.

  19. Sounds like simple fear of change to me. But it is an interesting situation to think about.
    Monopolies have never been the most desirable situation, but good thing you’re not suggesting people stop using and becoming dependent on Gmail or Google?
    A new search engine could usurp Google in less than a year, and they probably know it. Hence the smart diversification we are seeing, into an ‘internet suite’ of apps.
    In the new distributed paradigm, I’m curious as to whether there will be a single ‘spice’: the data, the gateways, the network, or something completely different.
    “He who controls the spice, controls the universe”

  20. Open standards and open-source are complementary and should not be opposed. But, on the other hand, the truth is that commerce and money are the forces that want the Internet to be a potent tool for controlling the next generation of mass-market sheep (as for TV).
    Open-source and free software have nothing to do with money and commerce.

  21. Adam, I would say it’s concern rather than fear. People like me have a tendency to build things simply because they’re fun/cool without thinking of the long-term consequences. I don’t fear the future, but I do want our industry to think about what it is we’re really building.

  22. Nick, underlying your assumptions is that Google and yourself (to an extent) — that is the internet — is the center of computing. I admit to a healthy porn collection on my HDs, but Picasa will never see it. Google would be smart to continue doing several things: (1) shore up Windows’ weaknesses in the browser, desktop search, and so on; (2) continue working with part of MS’s architecture to achieve its goals, i.e., why rebuild the wheel? and (3) make Google a trusted, reliable sets of tools to increase one’s productivity.
    Surfing the net is fine. Being a consumer of blogs, porn, news, etc. is fine, too. But using it for actual productivity and as a creative enterprise is another altogether, mostly unconceived at the cusp of 2005.

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