But first, Google needs to overcome privacy concerns, as proposed terms of service for its upcoming Gmail service leave users with very little legal protections for the privacy and security of their e-mail.
While the common wisdom is that Google's core business is search, in fact, even search is secondary for Google, argue several bloggers and journalists.
"Google is building a huge computer with a custom operating system that everyone on earth can have an account on," writes Jason Kottke, a web designer and developer, in his weblog, kottke.org, last week.
"Google's money won't be made with search," Kottke wrote in Feb. 2003. "That's small peanuts compared to selling access to the world's biggest, best, and most cleverly-utilized map of the web. And I have a feeling that they know this (Google is famously tight-lipped about what kind of company they are and how, exactly, they plan to make money), but they're just not letting on lest other people get ideas about trying to compete with them."
The misconception about Google's core business leads to the surprise over Google's challenge to Microsoft. How could an Internet search company challenge a desktop operating system monopoly? But in retrospect, Google's challenge to Microsoft is obvious. Established technology vendors are not generally challenged by competitors doing the same thing, but better and cheaper. They're challenged by companies that do something different that makes the established technology relatively unimportant.
For example, Microsoft itself didn't unseat IBM by making better, cheaper mainframes.
[Google has] this huge map of the Web and are aware of how people move around in the virtual space it represents. They have the perfect place to store this map (one of the world's largest computers that's all but incapable of crashing). And they are clever at reading this map. Google knows what people write about, what they search for, what they shop for, they know who wants to advertise and how effective those advertisements are, and they're about to know how we communicate with friends and loved ones. What can they do with all that? Just about anything that collection of Ph.Ds can dream up.
Kottke envisions Google selling cheap PCs running Gnome and Linux, tailored to take advantage of the Google service, practically giving the PCs away at $10 each. The PCs would run their own office suite, with built-in Internet collaboration.
Speculation about Google's future as a competitor to the Microsoft desktop is not new. Kottke wrote about it in February, 2003. But the speculation was heightened by the announcement of an upcoming free e-mail service, called Gmail, with up to 10 GB of indexable storage per user.
Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, said Gmail is just the beginning. Sullivan wrote: "Imagine next year that Google provides anyone with 5 gigabytes, 10 gigabytes or more of storage space for personal files."
Users would no longer have to worry about where their data is stored, or keeping the data backed up. Unlike today's data that lives on the desktop, the data would be indexed for easy searching. It would be accessible through broadband connections, which are becoming mainstream.
Through services like Google and Yahoo, the web has created "the equivalent of an operating system layered on top of the computer's operating system," said John Battelle, a former high-tech magazine publisher who is writing a book on the rise of online search. Battelle was quoted in an Associated Press article. "There is some question how important that underlying operating system is going to be in the future."
The AP added: "By establishing their products as essential services on personal computers, Google and Yahoo are vying to become even more ubiquitous as wireless technology proliferates and encourages more people to connect to the Internet wherever they are."
But Microsoft is fighting back:
Microsoft also has been spending heavily on the development of a new online search engine that will debut on MSN.com this year. MSN currently licenses most of its search technology from Yahoo.
A sophisticated system that will search computer hard drives and corporate networks is supposed to be a key feature in the next version of Windows, which may come in 2006.
"Our customers tell us that no one is doing a very good job with search right now," said Lisa Gurry, MSN's director. "Our own internal data indicates 50 percent of search questions go unanswered, so we think there are some great opportunities ahead."
Another obstacle to Google's ascendancy is the company's own privacy and usage policies: "All this assumes that people will trust Google with their data, of course. That's yet to be proven," Sullivan said.
Even though the Gmail is not yet available, "consumer watchdogs are attacking it as a creepy invasion of privacy that threatens to set a troubling precedent," the AP wrote. Critics are pressuring Google to "drop its plans to electronically scan e-mail content so it can distribute relevant ads alongside incoming messages." Another policy being criticized permits Google to retain copies of people's e-mails even after the users' close their accounts.
Gartner recommended that enterprises avoid using Gmail for the same reason Gartner recommends enterprises avoid all web-based e-mail services: the service isn't under the enterprise's control. "Enterprises should steer clear of Gmail, and all other free Web-based mail services, the Gartner analysts added, because they lack the kind of management tools and security demanded by business."
John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned that Google's proposed Gmail terms of service don't just "restate the law. They sweep it aside.... You agree to accept any future changes to the terms or policies. Any. If you don't agree NOW to all future changes, you can't ever use the service, even now under the current terms."
Google can investigate your use of the service and access and disclose your information in compliance with any government request, no subpoena or court order necessary, Gilmore said.
Users, meanwhile, are forbidden from extracting copies of their own e-mail from the service, he said.