"I think operating systems are kind of an old way to think of the world," Google cofounder Sergey Brin told a klatsch of reporters after the Mountain View ad agency's song-and-dance routine to announce its new browser, Chrome. Brin is a little older than me, which I find surprising — not because I'm so old, but because even I remember the days before there really was a personal computer on every desk (and on every lap, and in every pocket). What was there?
Mainframe terminals, or keyboards and monitors attached to a big piece of iron in a subbasement somewhere, probably built by IBM or DEC. While proponents of what until recently was called server-side computing have now opted for the friendly-sounding "cloud computing" moniker, let's not forget that Google has built some of the biggest iron around, fulfilling an even more ancient prophesy from the days of punch cards and vacuum tubes: that someday, computers would grow so large they would require their own warehouses, and require so much power, you'd have to build them next to dams. It makes sense from a business model angle. Google can give away open-source browser code all it wants — while keeping its search algorithm and Web index behind doors firmly locked with key cards and biometric scans. When you're not passively paying Google by paging through independent tabs looking at ads, you'll be actively paying Google by using its suite of office productivity applications. The browser is just another loss leader, as evidenced by Google's history of paying everyone from Mozilla to MySpace for traffic acquisition. Microsoft's model predicated on proprietary code distributed in paper boxes and intellectual property restrictions writ in byzantine end user license agreements has been dated for some time now. By tethering hardware to software and upstaging everyone with design and branding, Apple has done well by maintaining manicured gardens for the wealthy. But it has clearly ceded the business market by shifting focus to consumer devices, and derives much of its hipster cache from vapid anti-establishment rhetoric. IBM, the company that Apple wanted to smash? Doing quite well selling big iron and giving away open-source code, thank you very much. That's because the cloud computing worldview is one that has much to recommend it to large institutions, and IT guys at large corporations, research universities and in the government all understand it implicitly. Access to the highest level, or root, of a really big system is an awesome power. You can mete out shares of computing resources, invade people's privacy in all sorts of heinous ways and otherwise torment the poor plebes typing away at the terminals like a true autocrat. All those computer science Ph.D.s and technology researchers Google has hired have mainframes in their blood and ambitions far beyond two measly processor cores. Google is familiarly setting the stage for later dominance: From earning money from Web applications built for Chrome that lease computing power from Google App Engine to providing the very electricity to juice up these massive mainframes. Meanwhile, the faster you flip from tab to tab, the more advertising inventory you create for Google through their sites and through third parties. Hundreds of clicks and impressions in a day from every Internet user worldwide, from when they wake up to check email through their day at the office to when they come home and look up American Idol highlights, whether they use Chrome or not. So while much innovation has clearly gone into the design and architecture of the new browser, Brin's ideas are nothing new. The practice of running applications and storing data on a centralized server is actually older than operating systems for personal computers. And the dream of vertically integrating all levels of a trade network — of creating a monopoly? Even older than that. (Photo by AP/Paul Sakuma and Alex Handy)