googlechrome Google announced tonight that it plans to turn its web browser, Google Chrome, into a full-fledged operating system. Its first target is netbooks, which will primarily be used for web browsing and email and which can benefit from a lean OS that starts quickly and has little superfluous content.

The press will be all over this. It is a “direct challenge to Microsoft.” “This is Google dropping the mother of bombs on its chief rival, Microsoft. . . .And it’s a genius play.” “This may be the biggest threat Microsoft has ever faced to one it its keystone products,” says analyst Rob Enderle.

This is just an announcement at this point. Google has nothing ready to show; its timetable has “Google Chrome OS” appearing on netbooks in the second half of 2010.

By that time it’s likely that many more of our applications will be accessed through a web browser. That includes Microsoft Office, which will have browser-based versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint by early next year. (Outlook Web Access is already a highly developed version of Outlook in a web browser, and the next version is supposed to be even better.) It’s possible – maybe even likely – that we really will only use netbooks for online applications and browsing.

In its announcement, Google uses all the buzz words that developers and Microsoft-bashers want to hear: Chrome OS will work on all the processors likely to be used in netbooks and “all web-based applications will automatically work”; there’s some Linux code underneath it, which makes some developers swoon with happiness; the security architecture will ensure that “users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates”; the OS will be open source, so developers can twiddle it with no limits to their imagination; and everyone that uses it will get a pony.

Well, maybe. There will be much hyperbole about how swell this will be and how Microsoft is quaking in its boots. Expect to see earnest articles explaining that in fact Microsoft is already irrelevant in all respects except market share.

I don’t want to minimize this. The pressure on Microsoft is high. It will apparently have less than a year to cement Windows 7 in people’s minds as the OS of choice for netbooks. If Windows 7 performs well and everyone stays in love with it, that’s a daunting head start. Microsoft has been working on compatibility for a long time; it doesn’t always get it right but it has been moving in the right direction for the last few years and may not give Google much of an opening for boasting rights. In fact, Google might stumble – compatibility is hard.

Or this might really be one of the defining moments of a long slide to irrelevance for Microsoft. We’ll only know in hindsight.

Isn’t technology interesting?

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