Last week, Google announced its new netbook Web-focused operating system -- Chrome OS, to match its browser. The OS will be open source, a variation on Linux, so Google will be able to tap into the strength of that community from the get-go, and of course free ride on the work supported by IBM, HP, and the other tech companies who fund Linux.
There is a lot of cross-talk in the press and web about how this is or is not a deadly or minor threat to Microsoft's core Windows business, done with or without deliberate malice by Google, and how it is a disruptive or minor innovation that can be extended up the value chain (unless it is not), and how Microsoft must be very worried or perhaps highly amused.
The day before, I was at Google's DC office to hear Chris Anderson talk about his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. One point he made is that there is a big psychological distance between "free" and even a trivial cost and that the business models of the future must cater to this. This does indeed seem to be a pre-occupation of the tech world, which thus assumes that Google's free OS should sweep the board, except of course for the power of those Microsoft people who seem to cheat by charging for their products.
Now, I am as selfish as the next guy, but my metric is time as much as money. I bought a new home computer a couple of months ago, which came with Vista OS. I assume the cost of this was about $100 of a $900 machine, so if it lasts 3 years, I pay $33/year for the OS.
I don't program; like most users, I word process, web surf, spreadsheet a bit, email, and watch an occasional video. So far, all of this is seamless. I added Firefox to the browser menu without a burp, various TV channels have installed add-ons, and I can without a problem log onto the law firm computer in Denver to load a document via Citrix, and then print it out at home with a punch of a button.
None of this has cost me a minute's anguish. I remember the early 1980s, when personal computing was an adventure (I had a brown case Osbourne) and a daisy wheel printer was high tech. Every time you wanted to do something new, you had to set aside a day.
So why should I begrudge $33/per year? If I go for a free option, and it costs me an hour a year, I will count myself the loser. eWeek commented on Chrome OS:
After all, this is a platform on which Web apps will run, not just a Web app that can be patched up with a few lines of code. A broken OS means a broken computer. A broken computer means a busted plan for Google. Failure here could be devastating to a company trying to beat Microsoft at its favorite game.
Not belonging to a Cargo Cult, I assume it costs money to create the organization necessary to achieve a seamless experience. Lots of smart people must work to create it, and others must maintain it day-to-day. They must be supported. I personally like the simple system where I and millions of others pay Microsoft, and the company takes care of paying these people.
I would have no problem paying Google, either, but it won't let me. Instead, it is saying that it will make enough money from selling my eyeballs to advertisers to provide the support infrastructure. Or perhaps it is saying that "the community" will provide it; that is a bit uncertain. But this means that our incentives are not quite aligned, because my eyeballs are not worth much, and I don't know if my interests are the same as the amorphous "community."
So I can understand the staying power of Microsoft's business model. We users pay; it does the work. If the work costs more, we pay more. But I don't understand the staying power of "free." If the advertisers don't come, will the investment in support continue? What if the community gets bored? Writing basic drivers and protecting against hackers is not always fascinating; why should people spend their time doing it? If the model is "build it and they will come," and few do come, then the plug is likely to get pulled and those who did come left stranded.
Richard Stallman, the founder of the open source movement, likes to contrast two kinds of free -- free beer and free speech, but there is a third, called free time, and that is usually the crucial one.
So I will always pay money for value, especially when that value takes the form of free time. From Please Make Me Pay!Markets and Intellectual Property (June 6, 2002):
After a seminar last year, I met a representative of Google [it was Eric Schmidt] and fell into a conversation reminiscent of Who’s On First. I said Google is a great search engine and it should make me and others pay for using it. He assured me that the company has no intention of charging. I responded that its value to me far exceeds the amount of a modest fee, and if the company charged then it could spend the proceeds doing even more good things, and I would get even more surplus value. He answered that I need not worry because they are making money from ads and other services and will not make users pay. I said I worried that they might not be making enough money.
He edged away, keeping a wary eye on this madman.
As Vista demonstrated, an operating system can be a tricky beast. Google claims Chrome will be fast-loading, clean and virus-free. Nice, but I also want it to support my printer, work with iTunes and let me play cool games. And I want it to do useful work when I have no Web access.