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Is the Chrome OS an Apple Killer?

Is the Chrome OS an Apple Killer?

Microsoft may be a little unnerved about Google's Chrome -- the smartbook platform may spur real transformation in the PC space. Still, whether Google will reap the rewards of its innovation is questionable. It doesn't seem to know what it needs to do to from a marketing perspective to really execute on Chrome's promise.

By Rob Enderle
07/13/09 4:00 AM PT

You betcha. OK, I'm just kidding -- but in most markets that are divided like the PC market, where one vendor has 90 percent and the other 10 percent, a well-funded competitor would likely take out the 10 percent vendor on the way to taking on the 90 percent vendor.

However, as I look at this, I think Chrome will cause both Apple and Microsoft to think twice about some things, but I don't see that it represents much of a competitive risk to Apple, in fact, I'm no longer convinced the Android phone is much of a risk to the iPhone anymore, and I'll explain why.

I'll end with my product of the week: a fantastic little video-editing application called "vReveal" that works with Nvidia graphics cards to take cellphone videos and clean them up for your family or for sharing on YouTube.

Chrome, or How to Scare the Crap Out of Microsoft

Let me be clear: Google isn't going after Apple. It is going after Microsoft, and Chrome is crafted to attack Microsoft where it is currently weakest -- on the browser and desktop OS. Facing what appears to be an ugly migration from Windows XP to Windows 7 and an increased focus by users on Web -- rather than desktop -- applications, users are shifting their interest to new things. Apple has been, to date, the biggest beneficiary.

However, this is where you would expect the risk to reside, because Google's attack should be very attractive to the same audience Apple was convincing to switch platforms. Some recent converts might be made to switch back -- but if successful, Google more likely would capture the lion's share of new Windows displacement opportunity. That's because its offering targets that opportunity better than Apple's currently does. And that's because Apple has to focus on keeping its installed base happy, while Google can focus 100 percent on kicking Microsoft's butt.

Apple's Armor

Google's focus is on the very low end of the market -- what you might think of as the Honda Element class of company. Apple is at the other end of the segment -- more like the Acura crowd. This doesn't mean that premium vendors can't emerge using the Chrome OS, but the offerings initially will be high value. Apple's, on the other hand, tend to focus more on high quality and premium services, and they come at higher prices.

Premium quality will be emphasized by some of the anticipated advancements in new iPhone offerings.

In addition, just like Google is taking its Android platform and effectively scaling it up for Chrome, Apple could take the iPhone platform and scale it up to create its own competing platform that could be even more compelling. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me, given how cross-pollinated these two companies are at the board level, if Apple and Google had somehow agreed to carve up the available market with their two offerings. The two companies' products seem to be relatively noncompetitive, given their clear similarities.

In the end, it simply doesn't look as though this effort from Google is that much of a threat to Apple -- but what about the change it anticipates?

Chrome: The Core Risk

Both the Mac OS and Windows are based on the semi-connected world that existed from the beginning of the PC to this decade. Most this decade, though, represents a major shift in behavior -- from splitting time between PCs and TVS to spending most of our time on the Web and on smartphones. We are increasingly pulling our TV programs and movies down from the Web, living on applications like Twitter (I'm @enderle) and Facebook, and with new offerings like OnLive, which brings high-performance gaming to devices like this smartbook platform Google is trying to launch.

This suggests the era of platforms like the traditional Mac OS and Windows may be ending soon, to be replaced by products more similar to Palm's webOS, the iPhone version of the Mac OS, the RIM OS and the Chrome OS. Disruption can be a real problem for the vendors who dominate a segment, and this would indicate a risk that Apple would share with Microsoft.

Can Google Execute?

Google is all over the place right now. It has Gmail, Google Apps, its smart grid project, its book-indexing project, Android, Chrome and its public cloud. It has Google Voice and its massive mapping efforts. It's pissing off companies that range from Rupert Murdoch's media properties to AT&T, and there is such a thing as fighting on way too many fronts at once. I'm far from the only one who thinks Google is spreading itself way too thin.

In addition, Google seems to have trouble finishing things. Offerings either appear to be in perpetual beta or feel like they're in perpetual beta. Google seems to jump from major project to major project more often than some of us change clothes. In short, it has a real focus problem.

Also, if you look at the smartphone space, which is likely more similar to these smartbooks that will run Google Chrome, you see that it is currently dominated by three vendors in terms of mindshare. They are Research In Motion, Apple, and Palm -- all of which are vertically integrated. I think this is because when you add the required wireless carrier (cellphone company), the question of who owns the customer and the customer experience becomes too difficult to answer if you have separate hardware, software and network providers.

In the case of Apple, RIM and Palm, they own the customer, the responsibility for marketing the product, and product execution. I think that is why they are doing so well, while Symbian, Windows Mobile and LiMo simply haven't been as interesting. In short, this new market may be better suited to Apple's model than the Microsoft model that Google is copying.

Finally, despite the fact that Google probably controls more marketing dollars than any other vendor, it hasn't demonstrated an ability to actually do marketing. This is one of the reasons Bing's move is so successful against Google Search. It's a marketing-driven attack by Microsoft using an Apple-like model, and Google can't figure out how to respond. If Microsoft can toast Google with an Apple-like attack, think what Apple could do.

Wrapping Up

The risk to Apple that Google and Chrome represent has more to do with the changing conditions that are driving the Chrome platform. My guess is that its launch will likely speed up plans to take the iPhone UI into the Mac space and create a tighter coupling of Apple phone and PC offerings than otherwise might have happened. Otherwise, I actually think Apple is likely in better shape to weather this storm than Microsoft is at the moment.

The good news for both companies is that it doesn't look as though Google fully understands what it will take to succeed in this space. That means this move may be riskier for Google than it is for either Microsoft or Apple, unless Google focuses, builds up marketing competency, and executes better than it currently is. In short, like Netscape, Google may have instigated one of the biggest changes since the beginning of the PC, but it might be unable to capitalize on it.

Product of the Week

I'm kind of fascinated about the entire concept of using a graphics processor to do real work. It amazes me how much faster these things are when it comes to processing video content. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that a part designed to render graphics could be great at improving or transcoding a graphics file. It just seems kind of like magic when it works.

vReveal can take a really lousy cellphone-quality video and -- while it doesn't turn it into HD -- make it clear enough to enjoy. It is easy to use, and at US$49, it isn't very expensive, and the end product is surprisingly good. What's fascinating is that it even worked on my Atom-based Rivo Aspire mini-desktop with Nvidia Ion graphics, which is a truly low-end product. The only catch is you need a graphics component that supports Nvidia Cuda, which means it needs to be relatively new. If you're in doubt, you can download the free trial and see if it works.

Easy, inexpensive, and it does a nice job -- that makes vReveal ideal for my product of the week.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.


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