Today, Google unveiled a new application that allows you to search your desktop, blurring the lines between desktops and the web. This is yet another example of what I call hybrid computing, the new class of software that can be augmented through web use. It also has staggering implications for a lot of players.
Of course, everyone will focus on how this move puts Google and Microsoft in a competitive situation. Microsoft representatives have said they considered search an important space, potentially putting Google on the defensive. The interesting thing in the way Google approached this is that they did not react as Netscape did, launching into announcements about the future irrelevance of Microsoft; they did not take Microsoft head on in a market (Operating Systems or web browsers) that Microsoft currently dominates. What they did was leverage off a market in which they had the advantage: Search. While they did not come out and say it out loud, the message is clear: you can have search in Longhorn when it comes out or you can have it now. Try Google today and maybe you’ll want to stick around in the future.
Apple has already announced an interest in search, with the unveiling of Spotlight, a new search feature available in the next version of their operating system. Google has not released a product on the Mac platform but I would not be surprised if that were coming… after the product is available for Linux. The continuing decline of the Mac platform seems to push it further and further into irrelevance. Now, Google attacks the mac platform by taking a feature that was supposed to be a differentiator, compared to Windows, and making it available on the Windows platform. This is potentially dangerous to Apple, a company trying the monolithic approach at offering solutions: Use Apple and that’s all you need.
Modular by Design
I recently highlighted what I call the Modular by Design approach, which is predicated on 6 basic key points: standards, focus, flexibility, speed, communication, and stealth. In unveiling this new tool, Google seems to be adopting the approach as a competitive advantage. If you consider Google as the standard for search (and it seems there is a consensus agreement that, for the time being, that’s the case), they are following a pretty standard-based approach. Their focus is on search, obviously. Their flexibility comes from the ability to adapt that focus to target key markets. In terms of speed, it is hard not to see the speed of growth of the company (which did not exist 7 years ago and has rolled most of its new offerings in the last 2-3 years). From a communication standpoint, they are involved in getting feedback from their user community, often releasing products as very long beta (for example, Google News and Froogle, their shopping search engine, are still in beta even though both have been out for over a year). And moves like the announcement of Gmail and today’s new offering show a strong ability at operating stealthily.
On the relevancy of the Operating System
Almost as important in the blurring of the lines between desktops and the web, as illustrated by Google desktop, is a discussion about the long term relevancy of the operating system as an application platform. It seems that increasingly, the application platform is becoming the web, with operating systems being roughly a way to run connected software. Already today, more and more of our daily tasks are running through the Internet, whether it is communication (email, IM, VoIP), research (web surfing, information consumption from news sites and blogs), creation and distribution (weblogs and their extensions like podcasting, photoblog, etc..) or entertainment (music, movies, games…)
From there, then comes two potential areas of interest for new software developers: tools that can help the creation of new things (weblogs, photo-editing software, music editing software, other data-type creation tools like Flash), tools and protocols that can help their distribution (RSS, search tools, servers), and tools that ease their consumption (Newsreaders, picture-viewer, plug-ins, etc…) Most of those, however, seem to be increasingly able to run within the context of a web browser. So what happens when tools that bridge the gap between the browser and the desktop become more important? Google desktop does provide one of those points of integration and if you look closely, it seems that Google is placing itself at the other end, providing tools for creation (Blogger, Picasa) and organization and discovery (search). This could be a pretty large marketplace for them and could help them control a substantial part of the digital future. At the same time, the move of those tools continues to erode the relevance of the operating system as the platform as more and more services move to browser-based systems. Google firing this shot across the bow of the Microsoft ship is not only aimed at Microsoft but also at other OS vendors.