Is Googlestill a search company? A couple years ago, I asked that question of a Google spokesman who replied: “We do search. But we reserve the right to define 'search' any way we want.”
That definition no longer applies. After all, Google now offers email, photo editing software, a cell phone operating system, a Web browser, and now, its latest announcement, the Chrome operating system. Just what is Google these days?
The answer is both simple and complex. Google is an Internet company. It does the Internet. It is the ultimate dot-com survivor, the one that survived the crash of 2000 and emerged like a small furry rodent that took over the earth from the age of the dinosaurs. Google is a survivor, a company adapted to the fertile environment that is the Internet. The Internet itself can be described as the Post-PC Age. And that's what the Chrome OS is all about.
All Google's excursions outside the field of search have been focused on the power of the Internet. In 1999, search was a sufficient market to feed a fast-growing company. But in reality, it was simply the entry point for Google, the technology that founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin invented because they could and because there was an immediate need. But Larry and Sergey are children of the Internet, coming of age just as Internet reached adolescence and became the World Wide Web. Their goal is to see it to maturity.
The Chrome OS represents the opportunity for Larry and Sergey to turn Google into an integrated Internet company, the way DOS and then Windows turned Microsoftinto an integrated PC company. Once Microsoft controlled the operating system of PCs, it was able to build applications that efficiently used the OS, turning Microsoft into the world's leading software company, leaving nothing but niches for everyone else.
Chrome offers Google the opportunity to integrate its different Internet applications. Google currently has only loose integration between its offerings. Sign in to one Google app, such as GMail, and you're automatically signed in to every other app, such as Picasa, iGoogle and Google Calendar. Set up an event on your calendar and use it to invite other email users, and when they hit the 'yes' button on their email, they are instantly entered as “attending” on their own and every other attendees' calendars. Chrome OS offers a way for Google to integrate everything you do online.
A big cautionary note about the Chrome operating system is that there are not yet any applications for it. That was the same criticism of Microsoft Windows when it was introduced. Software competitors, in fact, refused to write applications for Windows, hoping to keep Microsoft from gaining more traction. It backfired. Windows took off and Microsoft was the only company with robust applications. I can easily envision the same thing happening to Chrome OS.
Still, it is not likely to gain Google the kind of dominance Microsoft has had. For standalone PCs, compatibility was created inside the computer, completely dependent on a single OS. On the Internet, compatibility is created in the cloud. The bulk of the applications do not reside in the netbook, but in the Internet cloud, where huge networks of computers (and Google's is the biggest) can make sure every application can exchange information with other. The Internet Age is distributed. Google will never hold the choke point that Microsoft enjoyed.
But Chrome OS will make integration easier. It will create an identity for its users (assuming they are also willing to accept the Post-Privacy Age we're also entering) and customize everything to the individual's needs and desires. It will make integration easier.
The Chrome OS is a catalyst. It will show others the way, and act as the seed that moves many industries, from telecommunications to computers, and perhaps someday to television and books, into the Post-PC era and into the true Internet Age. That's the role that Larry and Sergey like best.
Richard L. Brandt is a journalist with over 20 years’ experience covering science, technology and business. He is the author of the upcoming book, INSIDE LARRY AND SERGEY's BRAIN (Portfolio, September, 2009).