It’s been just two months since Google rolled out its new Web property “Knol” to much confusion, ill will among advertisers and derision for the worst brand name of all time. Many have asked whether we really need another Wikipedia.
Last month, Google announced another seemingly-redundant product: it’s new Web browser, Chrome. And at the end of this month, Google will launch the much-anticipated Android-based G1 smart phone.
Why develop a new Web browser? (Especially when Google has been spending heavily to invest in the open-source Firefox browser.) Is this a sign that Google’s culture of a million innovations has gone off the deep end? Are there too many engineers with too much “20% time” on their hands? Or is there a far-reaching strategy behind this?
I’m leaning towards the latter.
The Future is Cloudy
We are in the midst of a huge shift towards “cloud computing” — where we store our files and software on the web rather than on our personal desktop machines. This shift began for consumers with services like Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube; it’s now moving to online applications like Google Docs and Zoho, which may make Microsoft Office a thing of the past. Utility-like Web services have also been designed for corporate consumers, first by pioneers like Salesforce.com (which offers a database you can access through the Web), and now by Amazon and IBM. As I’ve written previously, this shift raises the stakes in the browser wars.
But what’s the advantage of Google entering the browser market itself instead of just continuing to support the successful and well-designed Firefox?
An Operating System Built for Web Apps
Google argues that Chrome is not just another browser but rather an attempt to build the next-generation environment for the future of cloud computing. In other words, Chrome aims to be a operating system for the next wave of Web apps that Google is developing.
It will need to be if Google really wants to challenge licensed-software companies like Microsoft. Many of Google’s current Web apps offer the promise of thrilling functionality (incredibly easy collaborating on Google Docs, the ability to work offline with Google Gears). But most are still trapped in a “Beta” version with limited applicability.
With the Chrome browser, Google may be able to make its Web apps more robust, so that they can really compete with Microsoft for the future of the personal computer space.
Chrome Smells a Lot Like Android
We’ve seen this play before from Google, except now it’s in the mobile phone space. With much advance buzz over the last year, Google has been developing its next generation operating system for smart phones – called Android. Google’s competitor in the mobile phone space is not Microsoft but Apple, maker of the iPhone. And industry observers have been waiting to see if the Android operating system will allow phone makers like Samsung and Nokia to roll out an “iPhone killer.” The first phone running on Android is expected this fall from HTC.
Open vs. Closed
With both Chrome and Android, Google is betting on the open-source model for innovation, which built the Linux operating system and the Firefox browser. By contrast, Microsoft Office and Apple’s iPhone are both built on closed, proprietary systems.
Open vs. closed is a big debate these days. Techies love to extol the virtues of the open source movement. But Apple’s success shows the potential strength of closed innovation, which allows for a seamless user experience. Closed innovation is why iPod+iTunes were able to break the deadlock on digital music (winning the trust of record labels and creating an intuitive buying experience online). Closed innovation allowed Apple to create the first Web-enabled phone that actually works in the U.S. (too bad Apple couldn’t build its own phone network, too, rather than use AT&T’s).
But Apple has not always been able to hold on to the success of its innovations. Windows stole Apple’s thunder (and huge market share) by copying the best design elements from the Mac. What’s to keep Google from swooping in like Microsoft did and copying the iPhone design (which has solved the key problems for a smartphone in the U.S. market)? Can Google grab the best ideas for their Android phone platform, allowing Samsung, HTC and others to dominate the smartphone market? Will the diversity of an open ecosystem triumph over Apple in the end?
Betting on Google’s Strategy
What’s clear now is that Google is pursuing a two-pronged strategy aimed at a future of cloud computing. They will use Chrome as an operating system to challenge Microsoft in the world of PCs, laptops and netbooks. And they will use Android to establish an alternative Apple in the realm of mobile devices. With both prongs, they are using an open innovation approach with many partners to challenge established market leaders.
It’s an audacious strategy. And it’s probably too early to tell if will succeed.
Right now, I’m hedging my bets. When people ask what me, “Which operating system do you use?”, I answer, “All three.” My mobile platform is iPhone, my laptop platform is Windows and my cloud platform is Google. But I’m open to see who comes up with the next great idea.
Columbia Business School and the Center on Global Brand Leadership are hosting the BRITE Workshop on Online Communities on Oct. 16.
Photo credit: Google