Operating Systems

Google Closes the Blinds on Windows

Claiming it was scared into reality by the Chinese hacking attacks of late last year, Google is phasing out employee usage of the Windows operating system due to security concerns, according to a report in the Financial Times.

At least that’s the cover story being provided by unnamed Google employees quoted in the FT article. An official response from the company isn’t exactly offering a straight-up denial. “We’re always working to improve the efficiency of our business, but we don’t comment on specific operational matters,” Google spokesperson Jay Nancarrow told TechNewsWorld.

However, a secondary effect provided by technosphere coverage of this story is to send a screaming shot across the bow at rival Microsoft. Google has its own OS, Chrome, heading for public use soon. Despite the fact that the software flaw that supposedly enabled the China hack was centered on an older version of Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s Web browser, and not Windows itself, Google’s alleged internal move allows the company to play on the oft-quoted fear of patch-worthy holes in Microsoft’s most important product.

The FT story quotes some Google employees as saying increased in-house use of Chrome and other OSes has always been planned, but the China hack hastened the move. Right now employees can choose a range of OS options, including Mac OS X and Linux, for their work, and other staffers profess to being upset about having to give up the Windows option.

High-Tech Gamesmanship?

“Google is reflecting legitimate security concern, but there’s also a PR angle here: ‘Windows is an insecure platform,'” said Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence and an editor at SearchEngineLand. “The relationship between this move and Chrome isn’t direct, because Chrome machines, which aren’t yet out in the market, aren’t really a substitute for Windows PCs.”

The FT story does indeed put more attention on Chrome, but it ignores the momentum that the Android platform has seen over the last year, especially with smartphones. “Regardless, Google is taking a very public jab at Microsoft,” Sterling told TechNewsWorld.

Rob Enderle, founder and principal analyst at Enderle Group, puts the shoe on the other foot for the search company and its own negative publicity issues. “This would be like Microsoft blocking Google search internally because of privacy concerns,” Enderle said.

“It was one thing to do a phone OS where everyone is all over the map and Microsoft is weak. It is something else again to go after Microsoft’s crown jewels. With Google’s own security problems, this may be another reason why folks in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks — I’d add, especially at people who have rock gardens.”

It’s all part of the high-stakes competitive nature of the tech industry landscape, Enderle added, with echoes of Sun’s abandonment of Windows a few years ago. Dumping a widely used OS will be harder than it looks, and if the policy extends to Apple’s OS — threatening the wrath of its internal Google users — the move could backfire. “We should likely anticipate disparaging that (Mac) platform shortly for ‘freedom’ reasons, even though the cause will actually be the same as their move from Windows. At some point, Google may realize that trust is an important part of any successful company’s makeup, and that it might have been wiser to simply have said they intend to test their own platform internally first rather than using a phony reason as the cause for the move.”

A Former Windows Workers’ View

For the last 10 years, Michael Cherry has been an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, focusing on Redmond’s operating systems. But from 1990 to 2000, Cherry worked on Windows for Microsoft — from the company’s 3.0 days to the delivery of Windows 2000 Professional. He brings an unique perspective to the subject of security concerns, and how guaranteeing safety within an OS can trip up Google down the road.

“An operating system is only as secure as how it’s being operated, how it’s being used,” Cherry told TechNewsWorld. “In the case of Windows, are you running with least privileges? Are you applying all security updates and patches? If you do those things, Windows is a very safe operating system.”

It’s easy for Google to claim the security high ground now, added Cherry; the Chrome OS is not in wide use yet and users aren’t clamoring for Google to add extra features that can open up potential API holes in security, as has happened with Windows. “One of the most dangerous things about Chrome is this concept that it’s safe. I’d much rather that Google state that as of now, there are no known attack vectors,” he said. “(Security) is an industry-wide problem. This is not something you gloat about or throw in somebody’s face, because you don’t know when your day is coming.”

How Should Microsoft Answer?

Microsoft did not respond by press time to a TechNewsWorld request for comment. Silence, in fact, may be the better part of valor in this situation, said Enderle. “Microsoft should ignore the move, as anything they do in response will just fan the flames, and there is no need for that. With the Chrome OS coming out shortly, it makes sense for Google to start moving to it.”

There’s been some humorous Twitter activity on the topic from Microsoft employees, Cherry said, but nothing official. “If I was Microsoft, I would just double-down on my efforts quietly,” he said. “Just keep making the progress they’ve been showing to make Windows more secure. Microsoft’s come a long way since Code Red. The best answer for them is to just keep doing their job, and people will notice.”

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