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Google, Sun, and a New PC: Anatomy of a Rumor

Talk on the Internet of a “Google PC” has proved false, so far. We look at how the rumors got started – and whether they may contain a shred of truth.

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.”

Cringely’s creative proposal gained some unintended currency when financial powerhouse Bear Stearns repeated the Google Cube idea in a December 19 report. “Through recent conversations with a technology pundit, we think Google could be experimenting with new hardware endeavors that could significantly change potential future applications by Google, creating another advantage for Google over its competitors,” the report said. “Investors may currently under-appreciate Google as a potential hardware company.”

The report, which acknowledged that Cringely was the pundit in question, went on to say that “Through our conversations, we have learned that Google may be considering developing Google Cubes….Basically the device would be a small box with many connections ports on it, in addition to wireless (Bluetooth/WiFi). Its potential purpose: it could connect to your TV or PC, or PVR, or stereo.”

The rumor mill ground on, as the Los Angeles Times picked up the Bear Stearns report in a January 1 article predicting major developments in the media industry in 2006.

The Times wrote: “Bear Stearns analysts speculated in a research report last month that consumers would soon see something called ‘Google Cubes’ — a small hardware box that could allow users to move songs, videos and other digital files between their computers and TV sets.” The article did not link Bear Stearns’ speculations to Cringely.

And the article went beyond the Google Cube, predicting that “Google will unveil its own low-price personal computer or other device that connects to the Internet.” The Times based its prediction on a report from an unnamed source who claimed Google was in negotiations with Wal-Mart to sell an inexpensive Google PC. “The machine would run an operating system created by Google, not Microsoft’s Windows, which is one reason it would be so cheap – perhaps as little as a couple of hundred dollars,” the Times wrote.

The newspaper’s claims spread quickly across the Internet after Canadian student Manuel Diaz, a hardcore user of the popular social-bookmarking site Digg.com, posted a link to the Times article on January 3. The link received hundreds of “diggs” (votes) from other Digg users, and as a result, was elevated to the site’s front page. Once it held such visible placement, of course, the link received even more votes, leading more Digg users to click on it, in a self-reinforcing cycle. (The story had racked up 2,756 diggs as of January 18, making it the 14th-most-“dugg” story of 2006).

Discussion of the Times article pervaded the blogosphere on January 3, with many bloggers apparently interpreting the newspaper’s prediction as an established fact. (Information Week’s website published a useful article surveying the buzz.)

January 3 also happened to be the first day of the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Google had a big presence at the show, which was scheduled to end on January 6 with a keynote speech by Google co-founder and president Larry Page. As the week went on, speculation swelled that Page would use the keynote to announce the supposed Wal-Mart deal – despite a prompt and flat denial from Google. Company blogger David Krane called the Times report “wildly speculative” and stated “We have a number of PC partners who serve their markets exceedingly well and we see no need to enter this market; we would rather partner with great companies.” [UPDATE, Jan. 23, 2006: Google’s answer was the same when the company replied today to this writer’s January 18 request for further comment. - WR.]

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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