Several articles have come out recently criticizing Google for their recent policy, removing the Windows Operating System from their currently approved list of OSes that employees can use. One might expect that I would be against this move, considering the recent criticism I’ve given of Google employees deleting their Facebook accounts. I think this situation is different though, and I actually support it. Of all companies, I think Google is most prepared to make such a move and I think we’ll see a lot of innovation come as a result.
Companies Have Tried This Before
Several years ago I worked for BackCountry.com as an engineer. While there, our engineering department had a policy, making Linux and open source tools the default, while only allowing other operating systems (including Mac OS X) on an as-needed basis. We found this saved us a ton of money, and, as engineers it made sense because we were able to completely alter the systems we were writing on as we needed. It also made it so we could completely duplicate the server environments we were developing for on our local machines if we needed to.
We decided while there to take this to another level, and while I was there we started to push this policy throughout the company. We got a lot of push back, and it took us, as engineers and developers, to help out the rest of the company as they adapted. We started using Zimbra for e-mail, Bugzilla for bug tracking, and everything we could do we tried to do with open source tools. We saved a ton of money.
There was one fatal flaw to this, though. Where we were not an engineering-specific company (our bottom line was probably our buyers, who secured really good deals on outdoor gear, or even our customer support team, where we preached “We use the gear we sell”), we simply did not have enough resources to keep this going and be able to support it all whenever the company had a need that open source software could not solve. The main benefit to open source software (which security is only a minor benefit) is that, as developers, you can get in and alter the software if it doesn’t meet your needs. Then the code you altered could be shared with the rest of the world and others that also might have that need. That’s a great benefit.
However, not having resources to constantly do that whenever there is a need means you’re always going to have weaknesses in your systems, and those systems are likely to fail. I think that became a problem for BackCountry.com, because I heard that shortly after I left they were forced back into a closed-source, Microsoft-backed Exchange system, which probably means back to Windows for most employees. The simple fact is Microsoft, when it comes to Enterprise systems, can’t be beat. Exchange is by far the best e-mail system there is out there. Linux pales in comparison, and has always had problems competing against Exchange and the desktop. Not to mention general user experience and understanding of the OS by a mass audience. Most companies don’t have the time or money to devote resources towards replacing these COTS systems.
Why Google is Axing Windows
So one would think that making a similar move by Google may be prone to similar risks. Google’s hacker culture I’m sure has developers begging to be on Linux or Mac OS X, and higher executives wondering how they’re going to get along without Windows. There’s one thing different about Google though that completely sets them apart from any other company out there that might try such a thing: Google’s base is developers. Not only that, but Google has a vested interest in creating an operating system that works.
My guess is that Google is using “security” as a front to put a jab up against Microsoft, hoping others might try to make the same decision. Google is hoping that the bad stigma Microsoft has had in the past regarding security (Windows 7 is actually pretty secure) might dwell in the minds of others considering similar decisions. However, I bet the real reason is that this will force all employees, in this hacker culture, to truly understand what they’re missing when there are no Exchange servers, when there are no Active Directory databases, and when Executives can’t use the operating system or tools all their colleagues at other companies are using.
Google wants their employees to hurt from this. When you make a hacker culture that actually has a monetary benefit (Chrome OS) to fix problems that arise as a result, problems get solved, and people stop being lazy. I expect that as Google makes this move we’re going to see a much higher rate of bug fixes and User Experience enhancements on Chrome OS and Linux, and possibly even Android. I expect better user experiences on the server. I expect finally an e-mail solution that works up to par with Microsoft Exchange, and a directory services solution that works up to par with Active Directory.
I argue Google Axing Windows as a company is a good thing! I hope it’s only temporary, or on an “as needed” basis so employees that need to create Windows clients that interact and drivers that work together with Google devices, that the company can still understand and work with such devices. Yet at the same time I think doing everything they can to challenge employees to truly understand the weaknesses their new operating systems and web services provide will challenge the thousands of developers working them to produce solutions. While I think security is a lame excuse and PR ploy for Google to remove Windows from their network architecture, I still think this is one of the best things the company has done in a long time.
Google’s move here could be the best thing to happen to Linux, and the open source enterprise world, in a long, long time.