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Friday, January 13, 2006

Google Apocalypse

In the title of this piece, I use the word “apocalypse” in its original sense—a prophecy (or, as we've come to say in this mundane, disenchanted world, forecast). However, readers with paranoid tendencies who ponder the privacy and potential monopolistic consequences of what I'm about to discuss may see them as apocalyptic in the more common sense of the word.

A lot of people have been speculating about “where Google are going”. Some expected one or more stunning announcements at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but that didn't happen, so the floor is still open for hunches and hypotheses. What follows is mine—I'm far from the first to come up with this idea, but I have, quite recently, become convinced that this is what Google are up to (or, if it isn't, where they ought to be heading, in my humble estimation). I have no inside information, nor any particular expertise in business forecasting (I am, you'll recall, the guy who predicted Microsoft had peaked in 1997). I don't have an MBA, but I have been called an MBO—master of the bloody obvious; if you consider what follows as obvious as it seems to me, that just might indicate it's a plausible scenario.

Imagine if, five or seven years from now, you can buy a Google logo PC from any of a long list of vendors for about US$100. When you turn it on it instantly boots a FreeBSD-derived OS from flash memory (no moving parts in the box at all) and launches the browser which connects to Google and shows your login screen. You log in, and all of your files, mail, and state are there, safely replicated on Google's servers around the world on all that dark fibre, served from the buildings they're buying near major peering points. You can, of course, log in from any browser in the world and see the same view of your state. (This is, of course, just the “thin client” scheme with Google as the monopolistic global server, leveraged with broadband.)

JavaScript/AJAX client programs in the browser communicating with the Google server farm will provide the full functionality of all applications now in Microsoft Office plus, of course, the search and context lookup you expect from Google. Google Mail is simply the first of these applications to launch, and it works quite well.

Google will provide the same privacy guarantees for user documents as they do for mail. Do you recall the howls when Gmail was announced? Have you noticed that many of the very same people who howled the loudest are among the early adopters of Gmail? Besides, a lot of people will say, “Hey, I feel a lot more secure with my data on Google's servers than on a fragile, rarely backed up Windows PC which can be infected with the keylogger and spyware du jour!”.

Of course, security conscious users (government agencies, lawyers, conspiracy theorists, etc.) will not accept losing control over the storage of their data. So Google will sell them Google server software which will run on their own Intranet servers and interface with the same browser clients (which everybody in the world will be trained on) just as if they were using the public service. Google are already doing precisely this with their search engine.

Did I mention that there is not a single Microsoft product anywhere in the loop here? Now does it make sense that Steve Ballmer is obsessed with “crushing Google”?

The only people who will need a machine with lots of local processing power are the lamers who play kiddie video games. They can continue to buy Windows machines and simply run the Google suite in a browser. But why will PC manufacturers pre-load Windows when 90% of their customers don't need it any more?

Posted at January 13, 2006 21:55