Has Google already become the next Microsoft?

14 Sep 2011

In the 1990s, the famous ‘Wintel’ partnership between Microsoft and Intel made the personal computer revolution possible. Intel’s new deal with Google sees the chip giant once again play kingmaker.

I wrote recently how I believed Google’s US$12.5bn acquisition of Motorola Mobile was really about a calculated Google-style ‘big bet’ on the internet of things, a remarkable new world where devices of all shapes and sizes could unveil a living, breathing new world of information. I still believe that.

Obviously, it gives Google patents, loads of the damn things, but also it fits with a pattern Google has been following steadfastly since Larry Page regained the CEO mantle. Google wants to become like Apple – hence the Motorola buy. Google wants to become like Facebook – hence the launch of Google+. And, Google wants to become like Microsoft – on so many levels this fits, from search to enterprise cloud applications for business and obviously, home entertainment.

You could say Page wants to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. But why should he? I would say he just wants to be Larry Page, the CEO who led Google to the promised land.

Today, it emerged that Intel and Google have agreed to work together and optimise future version of Android for Intel’s family of low power Atom processors. This mesmerised me because not only are we about to see a whole new generation of ultrabooks and tablet computers, but Android’s successful march is continuing unabated despite the various lawsuits from Apple.

Yesterday, it emerged that one in four Europeans carry an Android smartphone.

Earlier this year, I got to play around with a Chrome netbook and I recently got my hands on a Motorola Xoom tablet computer. From the moment I saw how fast and solid the Android 3.0 operating system on the Xoom was and how neatly and speedily Android apps downloaded and manifested themselves on the device in a way that was superior I thought to the smartphone experience, I could clearly see where Google was going with this.

The Xoom wasn’t just a tablet computer that did tablet computer things. It feels like a kind of fully fledged personal computer without the keyboard but with useful things like a HDMI output, a micro USB port and its browser was a tablet version of Chrome that works elegantly.

My epiphany was this: Google isn’t looking to dominate a whole slew of sectors for the sake of dominating or leading the market per se. Google has its eye on a bigger prize: computing excellence. Or, should I put it better, computer science excellence.

Seriously. Read between the lines, these are the people who worked out algorithms to define accurate internet searches. They love computing. They love logic and read between the lines of what Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt says every time he’s asked about Android – mobility is quite simply the next unconquered frontier of computer science.

We haven’t scratched the surface.

“Computing is in a constant state of evolution,” said Intel CEO Paul Otellini yesterday, describing the opportunities and challenges facing Intel and the industry. “The unprecedented demand for computing, from the client devices to the cloud, is creating significant opportunity for the industry. Intel is innovating and working with our partners to deliver computing experiences that are more mobile, secure and seamless. I’m excited about the new experiences that will be created across a range of devices, and we’re just getting started.”

The low power computing revolution

Like in the 1990s, Microsoft’s personal computing vision represented the next frontier of computer science. Intel had the manufacturing muscle to produce the Pentium processor followed by the Centrino processor, which ushered in Wi-Fi and 3G mobility on personal computers.

Yesterday, as I took in some of the details about Windows 8, I noted how it would work on both ARM and Intel processors, effectively ultrabooks, all-in-ones, notebooks, netbooks and yes, tablets. It affirmed just how exciting and competitive all of this is going to be.

Who were Microsoft’s competitors in the 1990s? There’s only one that I can think of that mattered – Apple. But without Jobs, the helm of Apple floundered and made strategic mistake after strategic mistake. I think its misguided masters at the time wanted to be the next IBM. Even Microsoft rowed in and saved the company with a multi-million investment in 1996. Jobs returned that year and now Apple is the most valuable technology company on the planet.

Who are Google’s competitors in the second decade of the 21st century for the mobile computer science prize? They are legion. First of all, Apple is neck-and-neck with Google in most markets with its iOS platform. RIM’s still around. Symbian is still the most utilised OS in Europe on smartphones and Microsoft has a steep climb with its Windows Phone and forthcoming ‘Mango’ OS release.

If you read between the lines of the hardware specs that came with Windows 8’s reveal yesterday, you’ll realise that not only will this be a mobile computing frontier, but we are entering the age of low-power computing. Ultrathin PCs and tablets will be able to turn on instantly and run all day on a single charge – while staying connected. In addition, next-generation system-on-a-chip technology support will enable extended standby and low-power states.

That’s why the Google Android deal with Intel and its Atom processor is fascinating to me – Intel may once again prove kingmaker in this next phase of computer science history.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years