Google Chrome Whether it's office suites, browsers or webmail, wherever Microsoft goes, Google follows. Now the search giant is tackling the Windows behemoth head-on, with a fully fledged operating system (OS) for netbooks - and potentially desktop PCs.

July's announcement of Chrome OS was one of those IT stories deemed significant enough to warrant attention in the national press and on TV. Experts from around the world were on hand to tell us that we'll soon ditch desktop software and use computers running a slimmed-down OS that takes its power from applications stored online.

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The fact that Chrome OS doesn't even exist yet, is nowhere near release and has yet to be fleshed out by Google only provided speculators with more ammunition. At this stage, Chrome OS is effectively a blank canvas upon which analysts can paint a rosy picture of the future of the ‘cloud computing PC'.

Google Chrome OS FAQ

That said, the basic premise seems logical. The problem many Windows challengers of the past have faced is that, to be a realistic option for mainstream computer users, any new platform must be available with a vast number of powerful, user-friendly applications. Linux traditionally doesn't support well-known software packages such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, and therefore convincing the mass market to make the switch is always going to be an uphill battle.

However, PC enthusiasts are familiar with a growing number of web applications, such as Google Docs and, so it's reasonable to predict that at some point we may require only a lightweight OS that's capable of launching a browser.

Leap of faith: switching to web applications

But can we really expect the mass market to ditch the familiar Windows environment? For Google to beat Microsoft at its own game, Chrome OS must provide a similar or better experience to Windows right off the bat.

That's where it's hard to see Google taking over the desktop. Web apps are written using online standards that were designed for fairly simple tasks. You can't depend on them for heavy-duty processing.

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Furthermore, it will be years before all the applications we currently rely on can be converted to work on the web - anyone choosing to switch immediately and operate entirely online would have to make sacrifices in the software they use. And most importantly, despite great progress in recent years, you still can't depend upon internet access wherever you go. So while Chrome OS is likely to attract adventurous techies, most of us will stick with what we know.

Yet the knock-on effects of Google launching an OS will be felt by us all, because Microsoft is likely to pull out all the stops to divert attention from the new kids on the block. The increasing challenge from agile internet startups is forcing Microsoft to reconsider its strategy and, over the past few months, we've witnessed a more gentle software giant. The firm has promised a free online office suite, proposed to promote alternative web browsers in Windows, removed limits on the budget Starter Edition of Windows 7 and offered the Home Premium version of Windows 7 for just £49.

These are the moves of a company on a major PR offensive - the result being cheaper, more powerful and more feature-rich versions of Windows and Office. So let's sit back and enjoy the Google-versus-Microsoft battle. In the end, we'll all win.

Read all about it in our October issue, on sale today.