For more than three months, the Internet has been abuzz with talk of new technologies that might emerge from a collaboration between search giant Google and networking and software provider Sun Microsystems.
The alliance, which appears to be part of an effort to outflank Microsoft in the area of software and services delivered via the Web, is quite real: the two companies announced it on October 4, 2005, saying they intended to “explore opportunities to promote and enhance Sun technologies,” such as the Java virtual operating system and the OpenOffice.org productivity suite.
But so far, Google and Sun have taken only one small public step toward cross-promotion, by including the Google Toolbar as an option for customers downloading Java. Rumors that Google would release a “Google Office” software suite based on OpenOffice.org or come out with a Java-powered “Google PC” or a “Google Cube” for home-entertainment networking so far have turned out to be just that: rumors.
For many consumers, the prospect of a new set of operating systems and application software that isn’t as risky and unreliable as Microsoft’s products, as expensive and eclectic as Apple’s, or as complicated and geeky as those written by the Linux community holds a strong attraction. It’s tantalizing enough that Technology Review has already covered it and will keep doing so.
Nonetheless, a look at the evolution of the latest series of speculations about new software or hardware from Google and Sun suggests that they boil down to little more than wishful thinking – amplified by the Internet’s tireless gossip machine.
Rumors of a Google Office software suite – perhaps based on Sun’s StarOffice or its free, open-source cousin OpenOffice.org, or perhaps built afresh in the form of Web-hosted applications similar to Gmail – began circulating in the blogosphere even before the October 4 announcement. Once the announcement occurred, many observers– who were looking forward to the emergence of a serious competitor to Microsoft Office – expressed disappointment at the limited scope of the collaboration. Yet some still held out hope. “This is the first step on the road that leads directly to Google and Sun trying to take Microsoft’s application and server revenue,” Stephen Arnold, author of The Google Legacy: How Google’s Internet Search is Transforming Application Software, told CNET News.com.
Business Week columnist Stephen Wildstrom repeated that theme in an October 20 article. Wildstrom wrote: “A world in which software from Google has replaced much of today’s Microsoft hegemony seems far-fetched. But advances in technology and the hints dropped by the very secretive Google suggest that it could become a reality a few years down the road….A Google-Sun alliance, if it flowers, could take advantage of new technology for running applications on the Web, one that eliminates the sluggishness and limited functions of traditional Web-based programs.”
But serious talk of a Google offensive against the Windows software family really began in November, when Robert Cringely, author of the popular Web column I, Cringely on PBS.org, suggested that Google ought to create another technology: devices that would wirelessly link together consumers’ computers, stereos, home entertainment systems, and climate control systems – in essence, allowing people to “Google” any household digital device. Cringely termed these devices “Google Boxes” or “Google Cubes.” He wrote:
“…imagine a world where Google Cubes were distributed as widely as AOL CD’s. It will be in Google’s interest to provide them in volume to every Google users [sic], which is to say every broadband user everywhere. As a result, Google becomes overnight a major phone company, a major video entertainment provider, a major player in home automation and even medical telemetry.”