It hasn't been a good month for Microsoft. First Google with its Nexus One, then Apple with its iPad, have highlighted how its empire is in risk of falling, replaced by a new mobile world in which Microsoft is irrelevant.
Most revolutions fail because the revolutionaries can't stay united. This one is no different. And there is plenty of skirmishing among the revolutionaries.
Apple and Adobe are engaged in a battle in which Apple seeks to use HTML 5 to snuff out Flash. Google and Apple, once lovey-dovey to the point that Google's CEO was on Apple's board of directors, are squared off over Android. And so on.
But Microsoft continues to be the big target. Specifically, it's the Microsoft-dominated "desktop model" of computing.
I'm not talking about the size or portability of the PC, but rather the metaphor of a desktop, folders, and applications. It's a world in which the so-called network effect makes it nearly impossible for any competitor to catch up. Regardless of how much money Apple spends on those Mac vs. PC commercials, the Mac will forever be a minority player.
So both Apple and Google -- for very different reasons -- are setting out to smash the empire by creating entirely new systems.
The iPad aims to create a new model of consumer-focused computing and rally independent developers into an army totally controlled by Apple, unable to function without dependence on its company store. That army's rules are harsh. If you wonder, go read the terms to which you have to agree in order to become blessed as an iPad developer. The reward is a perhaps better life than independent developers have had under the bitter rule of Microsoft, which has a habit of visiting upstart startups with an offer they can't refuse.
Google's aims are different: to perpetuate its vision of an empire built by organizing all the world's information, not by creating sexy consumer devices. Microsoft is the single biggest threat to that vision, so Google has set forth two efforts that ultimately aim at unseating Microsoft (and laying a moat to keep Apple away).
One is Android, which is clearly modeled on the iPhone/iPad system but in a far more open way, free of secrets and not-so-veiled threats. The other is Chrome -- the operating system, not just the browser.
I test-drove ChromiumOS yesterday just to understand its potential. I downloaded and installed it on a 2-gig thumb drive, stuck it into my semi-netbook (11.6-inch Acer), and rebooted.
It's blazingly, in fact shockingly fast. In a matter of seconds I could log in (booting Windows would take about 90 seconds). I typed a username and password and instantly I was running the now-familiar Chrome browser, pointed at a page displaying icons for popular services like Pandora, Lala,Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google Books and of course Google's Web apps such as Gmail and Google Docs.
There is no desktop and no software to install. It's all browser, all the time, running totally off my 2-gig thumb drive, ignoring my laptop's hard drive. This is clearly aimed at enabling devices under $200, and maybe even under $100, that have no moving parts.
But no desktop? No files and folders? No local applications to install? Then I have to have an Internet connection to use this, right? This is where HTML 5's support of a local storage database comes in, along with Google Gears. They make it possible for Web pages to persist and Web applications to continue working offline. ChromiumOS has a lot of work to do on that front, but the foundation has been laid.
Like Android, there's a security-hardened version of Linux underneath. Linux is industrial-strength software, powering all of Google's giant search and advertising services, but it runs on tiny systems, too. Apple's Darwin core, which underlies OSX and iPhone alike, is similar, if less mature. Their software isn't trapped on hardware whose specifications are dictated by Microsoft and Intel. It can be smaller, cheaper, taking tiny sips of power from batteries that might last days on a single charge.
At the Consumer Electronics Show this month, dozens of prototype tablets and netbooks were being shown. Chinese factories that today might make portable music or video players or GPS systems are gearing up to make Android or Chrome-powered Web devices. They're aiming low and they're aiming cheap, in the failure zone where disruptive innovation happens.
Clearly change is in the wind. Whether it's good or bad for us depends on how we respond. Picking sides is dangerous. As content providers or as software developers, we're probably smart to find ways to sell ammunition and supplies to all of the major opposing camps, if we can avoid getting shot in the process.