July 11, 2009

OSS : Onward Software Soldiers

Onward Software Soldiers, marching as to war,
With a Chrome-on-Linux going on before,
Google, the loyal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle, hear its trumpets blow.

Predictions are hazardous and emphatic ones even more so -- for the credibility and reputation of the predictor -- but let me stick my neck out anyway and state that Google Chrome might just as well drive a stake through the heart of the proprietary and paid-for software story.

The ethic of reciprocity also known as the Golden Rule is an ethical code that states one has a right to just treatment, and a responsibility to ensure justice for others. One of the many ways of expressing this ethic is "do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you". Microsoft violated this code when it killed Netscape by bundling a "free" browser with its dominant operating system but having sowed the wind, they now reap the whirlwind as Google plans to ship a free operating system along with the hardware and put Microsoft out of business -- after all, in a world without walls who needs windows ?

But a free operating system may not be enough to kill of Microsoft. Desktop Linux, particularly Ubuntu, has been around for quite some time but Microsoft still rules the roast. Why ? Because a vast majority of users are intellectually and mentally lazy to step out of their zone of comfort and of course Microsoft has a below-the-belt approach of convincing and coercing those in positions of apparent authority to spread fear-uncertainty-doubt into any decision making process. Industry associations like NASSCOM --who are generously bankrolled by Microsoft -- are particularly susceptible to this pressure.

But "No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come." And Chrome is not one, but two brilliant ideas bundled into one silver bullet that has M$ written on it!

What are these two ideas ?

First : Zero Cost. Anything that is free is always preferable to something that one has to pay for.
Second : Cloud Computing, as a viable business model. We all know that while free is good, there can never be a free lunch .. there has to be a business model somewhere that ensures that software programmers can -- and should -- earn a decent wage.

With Cloud Computing, we are moving the money from products to services and Google has very convincingly demonstrated that it is possible to make money, and tons of money, by distributing free products and bundling in services.

But making money is not all -- how you make money is more important. Every time I pay money to Microsoft -- like when I bought Vista and M$ Office -- I resent having to do so because I have an Ubuntu machine running Open Office on my desk as well. But on the few occassions when I have paid money to Google -- like when I was trying to sell my book through the Internet -- I really felt that I was paying for a service that I could not have got anywhere else. In a sense, it was OK to pay Google but not OK to pay Microsoft !

The reason that I am betting on Chrome is because it is a natural extension of the cloud computing model that in a way has been around for years albeit under different names, A long time ago, this model was referred to as the mainframe computer ! where all data and "intelligence" was located on a central server.

The client-server model -- largely pioneered by Microsoft technology -- was the first big challenge to this model but after a lot of hype and hoopla -- and beautiful, user friendly screens -- people realised that the client server model was neither scalable nor manageable for anything but low end applications. The rise of the internet and the world wide web threw up a new model of browser based computing -- where the browser was the "universal client" and the network was the "virtual server" -- that preserved the facade of a client-server model but in reality had many of the properties of the mainframe model. Companies like IBM, Oracle and Sun tried to capitalise on this model by introducing "thin client" machines like NetComputer and NetStation that were designed to run off the network but the model did not quite catch on with users for two reasons : (a) inadequate bandwidth -- inexpensive and reliable broadband was still a couple of years away and (b) very few native applications -- none of the available applications had been designed with the network in mind and hence had to be force-fitted or rather shoved down the users' throat.

But today is different from yesterday.

A vast majority of us, for example, are so comfortable with web based mail -- pioneered by Hotmail -- that we are not even aware that we are using cloud computing. So is going to be the case with more and more applications like Wordprocessing, Spreadsheets and Presentations which are already available from Google Docs and Zoho.

And of course with broad band becoming ubiquitous and affordable, the threat of being cut-off from the net is as frightening or is as business-as-usual as a power failure. Do people hesitate to buy a TV because of the load shedding ? Not really. Will people hesitate to use the cloud because of inadequate net access ? Equally unlikely -- provided the application programs that are available in the cloud are as interesting as the TV programs that are available on the broadcast channels !

So where are we ? On cloud nine ?

Not yet, but let us get started with cloud computing and with Google Chrome in the pipeline life can only be better -- and less expensive -- than what it is today.

the initial piece of poetry is of course adapted from the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers"

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