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The most important factor, though, is the recent and rapid improvement in Web software. Thanks to these innovative applications, a non-Microsoft, non-Mac computer could operate in either one of two ways. It could be a true “network device,” relying on Web-based applications for all its needs and shipping without a full-featured operating system. Today, browser alternatives such as Firefox and Web-based applications such as Writeboard (word processing) and Basecamp (project management) are proving that an application can be as useful when based online as on a desktop. Across the Web, a new wave of software development is rising up, using technologies such as AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript and XML) that bring new functionality and desktop-like performance to Internet applications.

Google’s Gmail is an excellent example of this trend: it’s a Web-based email program; but unlike Hotmail, which must refresh a page whenever you close a message or want to reply, Gmail’s foundation in AJAX allows it to appear as if the program exists on your desktop.

The second option for such a PC would be to ship it with an alternative operating system, such as a desktop version of Linux, and for it to run non-Microsoft applications, such as Sun Microsystem’s Star Office – a counterpart to Microsoft’s Office program. This, too, is a general area that has grown in the last couple of years.

This scenario does not deny that Microsoft is still a monopoly in office applications, and its browser, Internet Explorer, is the hands-down leader. The biggest challenge for alternative products in the marketplace is “consumer demand,” according to Kevin Carmony, CEO of Linspire, a desktop Linux company. “It’s very difficult to educate consumers after 20 years of Microsoft that there’s an alternative. They’re brainwashed into thinking there’s one choice.”

Enter Google. If there’s one company with the deep pockets and high regard to make a legitimate run at changing consumers’ computing behavior, it’s Google. The company is an odd bird that appeals to engineers, investors, and grandmothers alike. If history is any indication, however, this alignment of factors won’t last that long. While the announcement of “Google Cube” isn’t coming today, Google and its ilk should not let the moment slip away to reinvent the PC.

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