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The rumors finally began to die down after Page failed to mention either Wal-Mart or a Google PC in his speech. According to the British news site The Inquirer, reporters asked Page after the speech what had happened to a low-cost Google PC with its own new operating system. Page’s response: “Was there supposed to be one?”

Instead, Page used the keynote to announce Google Pack – a free collection of existing desktop programs such as Google Desktop, Google Earth, and Mozilla’s Firefox browser – and the planned opening of Google Video Marketplace, where Internet users can rent downloadable TV shows, movies, and short subjects.

To date, then, the world remains stuck with three major kinds of computers and their three respective operating systems: PCs running Windows, Macs running OS X, and servers (and a handful of desktops) running Linux and other descendants of Unix. Google and Sun have not come to the rescue. But what’s clear from the long, Internet-enhanced game of Telephone that led up to the rumors about Page’s speech is that computer users fervently wish they would.

Google’s information services are appreciated around the world for their simplicity, reliability, comprehensiveness, and, of course, low cost (videos at the Google Video Marketplace are the first items Google has ever asked consumers to pay for). If the programmers at Google can build a better search engine, a better e-mail system, a better mapping program, and so forth – and make them all free – it’s natural to ask why they couldn’t built a better computer or a better operating system. (Never mind that the only piece of hardware the company has ever sold is the Google Search Appliance, a box preloaded with software that crawls and indexes a company’s electronic documents.)

Clearly, the rumors about the imaginary Google Office, Google Cube, and Google PC got out of hand. They were fueled by consumer frustration with existing hardware and software, and, like most rumors, gained unearned credibility as they spread from source to source.

On the other hand, two conflicting ideas can be true at the same time. There may still be reason to believe that something is brewing at Google and Sun.

Sun president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz has dropped hints that Sun is working on extending the technology behind web-hosted services such as Google’s Gmail – a technology called AJAX, for Asynchronous Javascript and XML – to desktop applications such as OpenOffice.org. “Could these apps [OpenOffice.org, Flickr, Firefox, Google Earth, and iTunes] be enhanced with better network connectivity, more collaboration, and better integration into your daily life?” Schwartz asked in an October, 2005 blog entry. “Absolutely. So if you want to know what the future portends for OpenOffice.org, that’s a fine place to start (and AJAX will likely play a role).”

At the same time, Google has been scooping up software architects and engineers who are well versed in the technology of Web browsers and server-based applications. One of them is Adam Bosworth, a former Microsoft programmer who developed the HTML engine in Internet Explorer and was one of the guiding forces behind the creation of XML (the Extensible Markup Language).

It would not be surprising if Bosworth and his colleagues at Google – all of whom, remember, are free to spend 20 percent of their time on personal projects that might or might not develop into future products – were thinking about new platforms for Google’s services, whether new browsers, operating systems, or types of computers. Google, with its expertise in AJAX applications, and Sun, with its historical involvement with the open-source community, might do together what only Microsoft could do alone: end the era of desktop-based software in exchange for a faster, more flexible, more powerful generation of web-based applications.

We at Technology Review don’t know what form the Google-Sun collaboration will take. And we don’t spread gossip or repeat rumors as fact. But this is one potential story that we’ll be watching closely.

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