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Google to the Rescue of the Internets?

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Google's announcement of Google Chrome OS changes the battle plans for hegemony over the desktop and potentially changes almost everything associated with computing and the web.

In the fifteen years since the 'web revolution' began we've seen disaster after disaster. Should Google Chrome OS spread to and dominate the desktop we might see an end to all that. We might finally see an Internet that can be used in an intelligent way.

It was 24 August 1995 when Microsoft unleashed their Windows 95 on the world. A makeover of Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Windows 95 aka 'Chicago' aka Windows 94 (it was supposed to be released a year earlier) was at its core a dusty old 16-bit system incapable of true multitasking and protected memory operation.

The Win32 subsystem from David Cutler's NT was wrapped around the legacy Win16 core. And to prevent all too many mishaps a Win16Mutex as it was called was introduced to prevent multithreading when digging deep into the history and internals of that antiquated system.

It was more capable than its predecessors but it was not ready for the Internet. Nor was David Cutler's NT - primarily because Cutler was ultimately tasked with layering his old VMS atop an IBM PC disk operating system.

Microsoft spent millions getting their NT versions certified as 'safe' - and yet each and every one of those tests formally precluded the possibility of 'interlopers' - any type of intrusion by third party or device. No floppy diskettes, no CD/DVD drive, and absolutely no connection to the Internet.

Under those circumstances - and given the quality of work normally associated with Cutler - it's no surprise the Microsoft system was ultimately certified as 'safe'. But a lot of good something like that does in an Internetted age.

By May 2000 most of academia who'd flirted with NT because of the lower costs as compared with expensive Unix workstations had gone back to Unix again. Microsoft's Windows was a wash-out. And in May 2000 the first of an unbelievable series of calamities hit: the 'ILOVEYOU'/Love Bug worm.

Spread quasi-innocently from the Anaconda school outside Manila, the worm quickly got out of hand, crippled servers across the globe, and cost an estimated $5.5 billion in worldwide damages.

Microsoft had left a door open. A scripting language never used was left enabled by default. Simple legerdemain coupled with a bit of social engineering trickery got people everywhere to open what they thought were text attachments to messages sent by their friends when in fact said attachments were lethal scripts disguised only because Microsoft turned off file extensions by default. The icon shown in Outlook was a giveaway but few people paid it any heed.

Security researchers firmly in the pockets of Bill Gates were not hesitant to lay the entire blame at the feet of Microsoft. And over the years as the calamities repeated themselves and things got far worse the estimated total damage caused by inept Microsoft system code doubled and then trebled what Bill Gates was worth on a good day at NASDAQ.

Stuck with a system that was absolutely not fit for use on the Internet, Microsoft scrambled to patch things as well as they could. They started issuing regular updates and trying to force them on all users. They started working with hypervisors and whatnot. They started trying to lay tripwires for the bad guys who'd already broken into the system. Yet anyone could see none of this would make much difference in the long run. The basic system itself was simply unfit for use the minute the ethernet cable went in.

ILOVEYOU was quickly followed by a succession of similar exploits. AnnaK purported to have naked pictures of a tennis star. And so forth. One exploit turned out to be a lesson to the industry by a concerned netizen - his point was to teach people they hadn't properly reacted to what happened.

Media in several countries were muzzled when ILOVEYOU broke out. National television in Sweden kept a lid on the details for several days as did the BBC. People heard about the disaster but had no clue how it hit or what it hit. Only after an intelligence blackout that seemed interminable was it revealed the worm hit only Microsoft Windows and only Microsoft's mail clients.

By the following year things escalated. It was no longer necessary for victims to click on attachments. Now the exploits were taking advantage of the growing number of Win2K installations where Microsoft's web server IIS was enabled by default. All you had to do now to get infected was go online. All the rest was automatic. The Code Red worm scanned IP ranges, found the victims, and hit them hard. Traffic on the web went crazy.

The BBC spent some time testing a 'Watership Down' away from Windows using two likely open source Linux alternatives. People at this site decided enough was enough and started planning a migration as well. Lead by good example was the idea. And after eight months of deliberation they decided on Apple's Unix.

Of course the web in its entirely is no safer because two people no longer use Windows. Getting something other than Windows for the desktop or the office cubicle was still difficult. And so the outrages continued.

And although the precursor to Apple's new Unix OS had been an open system capable of running on anyone's hardware the new Apple strategy was to cancel this interoperability and concentrate on recreating the Apple look and feel of old - and strictly limit the system's use to people already on the Apple platform. All this great technology - and it was going nowhere. And this was happening on purpose. Apple management were deliberately limiting its use.

Mark Shuttleworth came back from outer space with a mission in mind. He would give the world a free - and safe - operating system. He would even pay to have it delivered to everyone's door. And yet even this did not catch on.

Microsoft resurfaced after the arduous trial in Washington DC, having only to settle a long line of class action suits, the last of which was finally resolved recently. A few more billion out of pocket - chump change for them. Today the EU Commission still have it in for Microsoft - and Microsoft can still end up paying further billions in fines just for being bastards in the way they do business.

Not Shuttleworth, not Sun, not IBM, not Apple have been able to break through Microsoft's hegemony. Now here come the Google guys.

The Google guys have an advantage none of the other challengers come close to: they have clout and in many ways are more powerful than Microsoft. They've collected on the mass migration 'brain drain' from Redmond, the drain that got Steve Ballmer hurling chairs around his office and proclaiming 'that fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy', 'I'm going to destroy Eric Schmidt', and 'Google are just a house of cards'.

Yet fourteen years ago Ballmer's boss Bill Gates took time off before the release of Windows 95 to write his book 'The Road Ahead' in which he reflected on the name for computers being not with the times - they should be called 'communicators' instead - and humbly proclaiming his corporation might not make it into the web era. All the while he readied himself for the attacks on Sun, Netscape, Apple, and others.

Linux was only a few years old when Windows 95 was released. NeXT boxes were out there and FreeBSD was out there too but Linus didn't know about them. He's later said he would never have begun his project had he known about them. But whatever: that's water under the bridge today.

Certain surveys still point to FreeBSD being used more than Linux. But FreeBSD - the 'underbody' of Apple's Mac OS X and their iPhone OS - doesn't have the brand recognition. And there's an important difference between the two when it comes to licensing.

FreeBSD and all things Berkeley come with the BSD licence. This is a generous licence that does not require users to open their code in the same way. It's enough to print an acknowledgement somewhere. But that's not the way Linux works. Linux is released under the GPL which requires all subsequent code be released in the same fashion.

If it wasn't for Berkeley Sockets being released under the BSD licence Windows users would never have got online and the web revolution would never have taken place. Microsoft used the Berkeley Sockets code to get their OS online - of course they altered a few things, added their own APIs, and made the poor thing leak memory like mad - and if this weren't a possibility things would be very different in the world today.

Google's coming OS will be released not under the BSD licence but under the GPL. It will have to be: it's based on another GPL product (Linux). This means the whole thing will be open source.

And as anyone will be able to pick up a copy (at least in source form) for free then the system itself will have to be for free as well.

Google don't seem intent on making any money off Chrome OS.

As for advertising: think how much money Apple spend on their 'Get a Mac' campaigns. And other sundry advertising. They have to get the word out. But Google don't have to spend a penny - they have 90% of the search market and they can put their own ads for Chrome there for free. And they'll reach a lot more people than Microsoft or Apple or any company could ever hope to dream of.

The interfaces are going to be interesting. The version of the Chrome browser for Mac OS X currently in development is hardly going to win any design awards. Here the question is whether Eric Schmidt sits on the Apple board of directors simply because he thinks the coffee's better in Cupertino.

Nobody beats Apple at dazzle and user interfaces and nobody can compete with Apple's NeXTSTEP/OpenStep/Cocoa technology. OpenStep has run on Linux boxen; here's hoping Eric uses the people in Cupertino he has at his disposal.

For that would be completely ideal.

Bottom line: if you're a corporation or a kitchen table user and you've been planning hardware or software upgrades then invest lightly and only if you have to. Chrome OS will take several years to permeate the market but there's every reason to predict it will become a (free) commodity product with near 100% saturation.

Anything can happen - the thing's only been announced and no more at this impasse - but what it looks like is this. Microsoft are totally washed up. They'll remain in history books and little more. Google have toyed with them for years as they tried to gain a foothold in Google's space and failed miserably. Now Google are bringing the fight to Microsoft's own turf and Microsoft don't stand a chance.

The world of tomorrow will be a safer world. Computers will run secure systems. the threat of malware will be gone. Companies like Symantec, McAfee, Sophos, and Trend Micro will be shut down. Security 'researchers' who've worked exclusively in the Microsoft space will be out of work. A lot of security consultants will be out of work. The entire topology of computer science will change.

And it'll be a better Internet and a better world for that.

See Also
Rixstep: Google Announce Windows Killer
Official Google Blog: Introducing the Google Chrome OS

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